by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
There are a lot of people who make a nice living as professional athletes. There are also a lot who manage to get along pretty well as “amateur” athletes. They include some of the most famous and respected people in the world as well as some of the most despised.
Until his retirement a few years ago, the most despised athlete was probably baseball player Barry Bonds, who might have been the best ever. He won the Most Valuable Player award seven times – more than twice as many as anyone else – and set the record for career home runs. Yet the last years of his career were highlighted by an inundation of boos and denigration wherever he went.
Another in the race for most despised ex-athlete is the once-glorified Lance Armstrong, formerly a professional long-distance bicycle racer. Like Bonds he was at one time unquestionably the best in his business. Now his name evokes contempt and ridicule.
The current leader in the race for the title of “Most Despised” might be baseball player Alex Rodriguez. Although he is in his forties and his career has gone south, Rodriguez, too, was once one of the dozen best major-leaguers ever, the recipient of praise and approval from all quarters. Now he is the recipient only of verbal abuse and derogatory dismissal.
What do these three have in common? Why PEDs, of course. Performance Enhancing Drugs. Since the most commonly used of PEDs are varieties of anabolic steroids, the term “steroids” is often used as shorthand for all PEDs, including Human Growth Hormone (HGH), red-blood-cell enhancers, blood-doping, and other illicit practices. As I write this, the International Olympic Committee is considering a ban on all Russian athletes at the 2016 games because of widespread PED cheating.
Image credit: sites.psu.edu
There are a lot of ways to cheat in sports in order to gain an advantage. Illegally altered equipment, for example, is a feature of baseball and is something of an honored tradition in auto racing (“If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’,” they say). Spying on your opponents to learn their strategies occurs in American football, and the academic cheating that is the basis of college athletics is by itself a subject for a whole post.
But what is it about steroids and other PEDs? What is it that makes the word “steroids” have the same effect on sports observers that a full moon has on a werewolf? Here are the most commonly heard arguments against the use of PEDs:
In athletics you must work naturally with what God gave you. It is unethical to artificially alter your body to improve your ability to compete.
But if an athlete is born without lower legs, he is allowed to compete with artificial ones, as did Oscar Pistorius (now disgraced, but for reasons unrelated to athletic performance). Other congenital disabilities are addressed by surgery. And before you say, “There’s a difference between correcting a disability and artificially enhancing what is normal,” let us remember that most professional golfers have laser eye surgery to improve their “normal” 20/20 vision (with or without glasses or contact lenses) to an “enhanced” 20/15 in order to gain an edge on the course. Tiger Woods had such surgery at least twice. How is using surgical advancements to improve performance different from using PEDs?
PEDs – steroids, especially – harm the body, and it is unethical to try to gain an advantage by means that will jeopardize your health over the long term.
Indeed, there are numerous detrimental side effects that can come from the use of anabolic steroids. For HGH, there is no clear evidence of deleterious long-term effects, so the opposition is largely limited to speculation and repetition of the mantra expressed by University of Minnesota pharmacology faculty member David Ferguson: “Artificial enhancement is cheating, and sooner or later, the abuse of these drugs will catch up to them in one way or another.”
However, the long-term effects of standard practices for developing athletes are well-known to be significantly damaging. In Japan, sumo wrestlers are revered, but their bodies are turned into fat-producing machines that put such stress on their internal organs that the death rate of sumo athletes is much higher than the population in general at all ages. American football linemen are also very large, with resulting demonstrable detrimental health effects. A 1994 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that National Football League linemen had a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population.
The same study found that those linemen in the largest size category (comprising two-thirds of all linemen) had six times the risk of heart-related death of normal-sized people. In the 22 years since that study, the size of football linemen has increased dramatically. A 300-pound player used to be unusual, but is now common, and the NFL should soon have its first 400-pounder. In 2005, Woodward High School in Toledo, Ohio, had eight 300-pound players on its football team. The sumo-ization of linemen is harmful not only to the linemen, but also to the rest of the players. Bigger tacklers and blockers hit harder, and the effects – including dementia – on those being tackled or blocked are well-documented.
Skirting the rules of fair play appears to be forgivable, unless it involves PEDs. Improving on natural ability appears to be acceptable, unless it involves PEDs. Developmental practices that inflicting serious, even ultimately fatal, harm to one’s own body or those of others appear to be not just desirable but mandatory, unless they involve PEDs.
If the detrimental aspects of the use of PEDs to enhance athletic performance are accomplished in other ways with little or no opprobrium or even with encouragement, what’s different about steroids, HGH, and the like? Dare I say the difference is that PEDs are “drugs”? We have been taught for decades that drugs are the worst thing on earth, that drug dealers are the worst people on earth, and that drug users are low, vile, and despicable. Is the drug-using athlete the personification of the despised drug, and thus equally to be despised? Let’s think about it.
The blanket condemnation of drugs as somehow worse than other mind- and body-altering practices extends to other areas, as you note, including distrust of psychopharmacological interventions in mental illnesses. People like to have clear moral boundaries, and are willing to ignore empirical evidence to maintain them. I think this is based partly the belief in the soul (to use the religious term) and the singular personality (to use the secular psychological and philosophical term). The integrity of the soul is seen as both a cause and a reward of moral integrity, that is, virtue, and anything that distorts it taboo.