26 Jun

Any sports fan, and specifically any baseball fan, should read this article by Jacob Beck. In it he discredits many of the arguments that are used to ban performance enhancing drugs, then comes up with one that he claims holds water.

I agree with many of his points, but because I like a good argument, I’ve tried to go a bit further.

(Note, throughout this piece I use the words “steroids” and “PEDs” interchangeably simply for variety’s sake; they are not necessarily the same thing. All steroids are PEDs, all PEDs are not necessarily steroids.)

First, a brief summary of the six bad and one good reasons PEDs are wrong from Beck’s article:

1. Using PED’s is cheating. Are PEDs illegal because they are wrong or because baseball simply says that they are out of bounds? If they aren’t morally wrong, is it still cheating?

2.         PEDs are unsafe. Well, so is playing competitive sports.

3.         PEDs reflect an obsession with perfection. They make us immoral by pursuing almost any avenue necessary to win. But don’t athletes do that anyway without using drugs?

4.         PEDs create inequalities. Only if they are illegal. If they were legal and teams could give them out there would be no inequalities, everyone would be doing them.

5.         PED users don’t deserve credit for their accomplishments. But our accomplishments in sports are not completely our own. We have trainers and coaches. And maybe big pharma reps.

6.         PEDs make success too easy. No one would claim that what Lance Armstrong did was easy, with our without drugs. You don’t just pop a pill and never have to lift a weight again.

7.         PEDs generate a vicious arms race. If steroids were legal all we would do would be constantly try to find a more magical pill than the one we’ve got.

That last one is the only reason he believes to be accurate. My thinking moves along similar lines.

Our mindset about steroids is skewed. One of the things we can compare it to is the war on drugs. I tend to be pro-legalization of what we call illegal drugs – marijuana, cocaine, heroin, that yummy blue stuff on Breaking Bad – for purely libertarian reasons. If I want to do stupid things to my body, the government should lay off. On the other hand, doesn’t the government have some responsibility in protecting me from outside risks? It is true that some nanny state rules seem to step over the line (Mayor Bloomberg, I look squarely – and slightly down – at you), on the other, many others truly save lives (seat belt laws).

Unfortunately, many look at the war on drugs and see a black and white, either/or scenario. Either all drugs should be legal or all should be illegal. There is no middle ground, like incremental legalization coupled with taxation and regulation.

The same problem goes with steroids. Either they are evil and anyone who does them should be kicked out of their sport, or, really who cares what a person does to his body? It is important to strike a balance and to not demonize PEDs out of hand.

Back to Beck.

In point 2, Beck states that: “When it comes to sports, a certain amount of danger is part of the game.” This is true. Injuries happen all the time. Batters are hit by pitches, football players suffer concussions, hockey players make British smiles look like faces in a Rockwell painting. People have been paralyzed, some have even died. But just about all of these occur as part of the game. Popping pills is not. There is no aspect of taking supplements that is necessary for actually participating in a sport. Furthermore, playing a game is not guaranteed to injure a player, but taking PEDs will most likely cause one of the many side effects listed here. For those who say something like: “LASIK surgery is basically medicine that helps athletes play better,” I say, true, but LASIK doesn’t shrink your testicles.

That being said, some believe that certain banned substances (specifically human growth hormone or HGH) help players recover faster from injuries. That is the reason Andy Pettitte took them: HGH supposedly helped him come back from an elbow injury.

Many of the other items on Beck’s list are more about the moral implications and less about the legal facts. Should we view Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens differently because they (only allegedly) took PEDs? Do they get asterisks next to their names? Should they be in the Hall of Fame?

In order: Yes. No. Someday.

Now, in reverse order. They should be in the Hall of Fame mainly because they accomplished a ton of stuff without using PEDs. But they should also be punished by not getting in for let’s say, oh, five years. (They already got voted down once.) Asterisks are stupid, as I wrote here. The game changes and we can’t always compare players of today with those of fifty years ago.

I never liked Barry Bonds. He was an asshole who could club homers. But mostly he was an asshole. He was a machine without a personality. Outside of San Francisco it was difficult to root for him. True, one could be mesmerized by his athletic accomplishments, but I want to like the person who is achieving them. Bonds using steroids only made him more of a sonofabitch in my book. Sammy Sosa on the other hand was someone I loved watching. He was a fan favorite. He loved to be loved and loved back in kind. He wasn’t just about clubbing homers. He was a showman. So the fact that he doped (never caught, most likely guilty) hurts me. I am disappointed in him for cheating.

For that is what dopers do. They cheat. There are certain substances that Major League Baseball – the employer basically – says are off limits. Why they are off limits is irrelevant. They make the rules, and players are supposed to follow them. They may be stupid rules, but they are still the rules to the game that is being played. I hate the taunting penalty in football, but it’s still there, and players have to follow it and not make fun of their opponents, because god forbid someone might cry.

Rules, however, are not always there willy nilly. There are basically two reasons for rules and penalties: competitive fairness and player safety.

In professional basketball you have to shoot the ball within 24 seconds; you can’t simply hold onto the ball and delay the game. In hockey, it is an infraction (icing) to shoot the puck all the way down to the other side of the ice, also just to delay the game. Same with football and the play clock. These are all there to maintain a certain competitive balance, in these three cases so that a team with a lead can’t just stall until the game is over.

Here are some hockey penalties: tripping, roughing, high sticking. Football: illegal block in the back, horse collar tackle, face mask. Basketball: basically any foul. Baseball: if you hit a batter with the ball he gets to go to first base. These are all there to maintain a modicum of player safety. If you break one of these rules, you get penalized. (Arguably, many of these rules are broken accidentally, but still.)

Now let’s look at steroids. They are known to be unsafe, and because only certain players take them, they create competitive imbalance. But, you might say, what if everyone took them? What if they were legal and people had a choice in the matter?

Glad you asked. The assumption here is that if we made doping legal, everyone would do it. This is not the case. While I’m sure there are a lot of players who would like to take steroids legally, there are also plenty of people who don’t want to take them because they shrink your balls and grow your boobs. This is where competitive advantage and player safety collide. You either have to put something into your body that is known to be not just unhealthy, but ridiculously unhealthy, and in some cases unhealthy in a completely unknown way because there have not been any real scientific studies done one them. Or you possibly lose your job to someone who cares less about his gonads.

And, as Beck points out, if everyone is taking PEDs, and have all increased in brawniness, suddenly we are back to square one, and we will have to start over and find something that is even better, something that will let someone clout 80 homers in a year.

But the main problem with doping in sports is similar to how we in America view illegal drugs, and of course sex. We stigmatize them. Not only are the drugs bad, but the users are bad people as well. There is no “drug education” that views even marijuana as anything more than an addictive weed that we must say no to. This is like abstinence-only sex education. We all know that even the most prudish, religious teen out there is curious about sex. Too many educators and parents simply hide behind a “sex is bad,” excuse. This is like teaching horribly incorrect scientific principles like the world is only 5,000 years…oh, wait a sec…

We need more understanding and more scientific study of PEDs to fully understand the risks, and in the case of some of these drugs, the rewards that will not aversely upset competitive balance.

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  1. A Tale of Two Players - August 7, 2013

    […] me be frank, as I wrote about earlier here, I believe that there should be rules in sports about using performance enhancing drugs, […]

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