Why bother?

That's what fans and corporate sponsors of Major League Baseball should be asking themselves.

Why should parents bother to spend $200 or more of their hard-earned money to take their family to a game, when the sport is rife with players who cheat?

Why should a car dealership or a beer company help sponsor a baseball team whose owners condone their heroes taking banned substances?

Why should anyone contribute to the salaries of athletes who, through their drug-enhanced success, are encouraging children to take steroids?

A long-awaited report by former Sen. George Mitchell has confirmed what most people already suspected about baseball: It's full of cheaters.

From home run king Barry Bonds to former Phillie Lenny "Dude" Dykstra, there are allegations of players abusing steroids and human growth hormones for two decades.

Baseball owners deserve much of the blame for allowing this charade to go on for as long as it did. The league didn't start testing for steroids until 2003, although rumors of drug use began to surface in the late 1980s.

Give the players' union some blame, too. It has been more concerned with players' privacy and earning potential than with their long-term health or the credibility of their business.

Blame the fans and sports media, too, for celebrating home-run derbies and pitching duels even as they whispered rumors of who was taking what for strength or endurance.

To clean up the sport, Mitchell recommended a "department of investigations" to police players and report directly to the president of Major League Baseball. That's a halfway step, what's needed is a gold standard.

The league should turn over testing and discipline to the World Anti-Doping Agency, which imposes at least a two-year suspension for a player's first positive test result. Major League Baseball recognizes only half of the substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Mitchell cautions that there is no reliable test right now for human growth hormones, but the international group has a solution for that. It punishes athletes who are caught possessing HGH or purchasing it, plain and simple.

There's really no other way to cure the sport of its addiction. The relatively lenient penalties and the lack of testing for HGH invite players to keep taking these risks.

Unfortunately, the league can't consider stronger punishment now, because the current drug-testing agreement with the players' union is in effect until 2011.

In the meantime, baseball fans need to consider their role. Some may be asking: If the players know the risks of taking performance-enhancing drugs, what does it really matter?

The answer can be found on every high-school playing field in the country. Hundreds of thousands of young athletes are believed to be using these drugs, spurred on by the example of multi-millionaire pro athletes.

Although an annual survey by the University of Michigan reports that steroid use by youth has declined 50 percent since 2000, it's still far too prevalent.

Steroid users risk psychiatric problems and organ damage. And there's no way of knowing how many kids are using HGH, which can cause cancer and cardiac and thyroid problems.

Baseball has been telling youth that the consequences for taking drugs are neither swift nor certain. That's the wrong message, and it needs to stop.