16 December 2007

Purity, History, Morality

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Now that former Senator George Mitchell’s report about steroid use among major league baseball players is out, can we all go back to paying attention to issues that actually matter? Because if there is one thing that truly does not matter, it’s an argument about the use of drugs in the big business we call sports.

Unless you’re a person who likes to fool yourself, the Mitchell report should be about as shocking as Captain Renault’s discovery of gambling in Rick’s. Athletes have been using “performance enhancing” drugs of one kind or another for as long as there has been human competition. The rationale is simple: they want to win, because winning means lots of money and fame. The real difference for so-called professional sports is that this is one of the few jobs where drugs can positively affect a person’s success.

Moreover, the argument that drugs provide an “unfair” advantage is, itself, rather absurd. Much like in politics, where unseating an incumbent is always harder than winning an open race, successful athletes are harder to beat: their success ensures them better training and tools. Do we consider it an unfair advantage that a wealthy baseball-owning corporation might spend more to support its team than a poorer one? Not really (despite mild regulations designed to change team behavior). Do we consider the player earning $15 million a year to have a competitive advantage over the one earning only $500,000? No. If anything, we expect the goal of a $15 million payday to motivate the poorer player. Somehow we consider these situations normal, and so we lose track of the complicated implications behind the idea that to the victor go the spoils, and turn a blind eye to the costs of such motivational lessons.

We should stop invoking a bogus and unnecessary morality that says that one class of drugs (e.g., caffeine) is ok, and another set of drugs is not. Some drugs are less “valuable” in the context of performance, some are more dangerous and likely to kill you, but all of them ultimately affect our actions – just as the food we eat, our sleep habits, and even our self-perception of success can, too. It would be a shame if an athlete died because of drugs, but no more shameful a problem than an athlete whose hobby involves torturing dogs. The dog-torturer hurts others; the athlete who takes drugs hurts only his/herself – and, possibly, the minds and emotions of those gentle and naïve souls who believed the world was pure to begin with. Perhaps once we let go of the unnecessary morality play around drugs, we can then move on to address the endemic of (actual) cheating that affects everything from standardized testing scores for school kids to our taxes. (And sports too, clearly. ) Those are real issues with consequences for the health and welfare of our nation, and not just for the glorified lifestyles of our much-beloved rich and famous.

UPDATE, 12/17: In the comment below, on the issue of all drugs being equal, I wrote, "It just depends on your perspective about 'drugs' in the first place." Tonight, NPR ran a story exploring whether the Human Growth Hormone (HGH) that some players allegedly took is similar to - and, implicitly, as dangerous as - the anabolic steroids that other players are accused of taking. Listen, and decide for yourself.

UPDATE, 12/23: New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey posted a piece today on this issue, titled "Seeking Role Models And Finding Human Beings." For anyone following this issue, it's worth reading, even if you disagree with Vecsey's perspective, or mine for that matter.

05 December 2007

More on Musharraf

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

A couple weeks ago, I wrote that the protests in Pakistan, against General Pervez Musharraf’s various anti-constitutional actions, were a reflection of the vibrancy of Pakistani democracy – other appearances about that democracy notwithstanding. Well, the protests continue (at least according to a report by Reuters today), but the situation has changed: Musharraf, who had been unconstitutionally holding both the civilian post of president and the military position of chief of the army, stepped down from his military spot. And he is (however unwillingly) being forced to confront one, and possibly two, significant opponents for the next election, since both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have returned to the country and to its politics.

All of these changes (protests included) continue to look like positive indicators for the future of Pakistan, for a few reasons. First, take as a comparison the recent elections in Russia: there, President Vladimir Putin used his position to rig the polls while sustaining a crackdown on the citizenry that extended to just about every aspect of the media, and where the very few protests that have taken place have been rapidly dispersed. Granted, Pakistan has (after a fashion) more experience with democracy than Russia. Still, it is interesting to compare the actions of these two “strong men,” both of whom have claimed the best interests of their country as their primary concern. In Pakistan, some media have been attacked and some protests quashed, but the overwhelming view (as presented by news media around the world) is of an engaged citizenry fighting for their rights.

The second consideration is the more interesting one: given a choice, Musharraf chose the civilian post of president over the army – about which The Economist quoted him as saying “This army is my life, my passion.” As chief of the army Musharraf’s power over Pakistan might be less direct, but would also be stable; after all, it was from his military post that he overthrew Sharif’s government several years ago. Had Musharraf retired as president and stayed with the military, he would have retained a great degree of control. Opting for the civilian position instead speaks volumes about both Musharraf’s sense of his country’s future and the evolution of Pakistan itself. Much as Turkey, too, has evolved in recent years – another country in which the military has played a strong and (arguably) stabilizing role in the country’s democratic system – even allowing a mildly religious party to govern, so too could one read the tea leaves for Pakistan’s future. If Musharraf continues to govern, to retain the support of the army without its direct involvement in politics, and to lead the nation to free and fair elections – even if he does not win them – he will have achieved great things for his country and himself.