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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wondering how you equate an anabolic steroids with coffee? Is a cough drop a PED too?

I also got lost in the argument that drug-cheat do not have an unfiar advantage. How does the argument that follows 'to the victor goes the spoils' follow logically anything about PEDs?

There is no 'morality play' behind drugs; there is a 'cheating play' behind abrogating the rules.

11:46 PM  
Blogger The Editor said...

Under present rules, the use of illegal drugs is considered an unfair advantage. But that anyone believes people are not cheating is absurd. The whole issue has been portrayed as if athletes have been pure, and we (the viewers) should be shocked that such cheating takes place. We shouldn't be shocked: people in those positions will do anything to win -- including cheat. There are no heroes.

As for caffeine = anabolic steroids ... well, yes, actually. It just depends on your perspective about "drugs" in the first place.

7:07 AM  

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