As I sit down to write this, Major League Baseball fans have been waiting for weeks to hear how MLB will punish players implicated in the Biogenesis performance enhancing drugs scandal. The rumor mill has constantly hyped an announcement of multiple suspensions that was just around the corner, but so far the only player to be suspended is former MVP Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers. As the story has been in the news, I have been trying to get a handle on my own feelings about athletes’ use of banned substances. I’m somewhat surprised to find that while I remain a goody-two-shoes who disapproves of anyone breaking the rules, I do not perceive PEDs to be the major threat to the integrity of sports that man critics and fans do. The reason, I think, is that I’m having a harder and harder time seeing the use of PEDs as something completely distinct from many other behaviors that are considered praiseworthy in athletic culture.
I do not want to overgeneralize here about people who like to play and watch sports. What I’m saying is mostly focused on the most popular professional leagues and competitions. I believe that the reason that these organizations have the audience and reach that they do is that a large number of people want to see people who are the very best at what they do, doing things that few people on the planet can do, under great psychological pressure. And not only do we want to see the best of the best, we want to see them pushed to the very limits of human ability despite the risks involved. You can not take physical (and psychological) risk out of the sport because the risk is part of why people are watching in the first place.
There is no clearer example than American professional football. Violence and danger have always been part of the sport’s appeal. Many players feel the effects of the sport long after their careers are finished. Now we are learning that the risk may have been even greater than we thought, thanks to increasing awareness of the effects of head trauma on the brain and the psychological problems that can result from that trauma. Pro football players – and all those who aspire to be pro football players – are expected to accept this risk with enthusiasm, and to push themselves past the pain that results. Read this story by Dan LeBatard about former Miami Dolphins cornerback Jason Taylor and what he endured in order to stay on the field. Medical science does not exist to help players get healthy in these situations. It exists to help them find short term fixes so that they can ignore what their bodies are telling them and continue to perform. If a player wanted to do what was best for his long term health, he would face pressure from the fans, his coaches, his teammates, and himself to take the risk instead.
We’re somewhat used to thinking of football and some other sports as dangerous, but this notion of pushing past your body’s limits at the risk of permanent damage isn’t limited to football. Baseball players may not risk the same brain trauma as football players, although they do face risks from batted balls to the head and other freak accidents. But the very act of throwing a baseball at 90-plus miles per our puts a strain on the body. Look at how many pitchers break down and require surgeries to repair the damage. Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies has needed numerous cortisone shots to play past the pain that hundreds of baseball games have produced in his legs and feet. These shots have their own health risks and may have long-term effects; indeed, there are some who speculate that the ruptured Achillies tendon that Howard suffered on the last play of the 2011 season might have been caused in part by the shots. But no one was putting pressure on Howard to take it easy and let his body rest. People wanted him back on the field. He wanted to be back on the field. So he took the risk and took the shot.
So we have an athletic culture that clearly promotes taking on long-term health risks in order to be able to perform at your best. I find myself asking why taking a weekly Toradol shot to stay on the field is considered “natural” but taking anabolic steroids is an affront to the competitive fairness of the sport. In both cases, a person is using chemistry to be able to do something that he would not be able to do otherwise. Some people suggest that using painkillers is different because it only allows an athlete to perform up to his natural level of ability, rather than to surpass it. But I see two problems with this argument. The first is that very few athletes are ever at their full, peak state of health – the wear and tear of playing ensures that they will not be at 100%. Part of what determines an athlete’s success is his or her ability to perform well even when he is not at his or her absolute peak. So mitigating that deterioration is, in fact, working against the athlete’s natural limits. Second, pain is a physiological function. Therefore the ability to ignore it and continue to play is, itself, a natural ability that is being artificially enhanced by painkillers.
That said, I can certainly see how a governing body might say that some substances that allow the human body to exceed its prior limits are acceptable, but that some are so dangerous that they are beyond the pale even for risk-taking athletes. I would absolutely love to see the major professional leagues, doctors, scientists, and athletes work together in order to help establish these boundaries in a clear way. The problem is, I don’t think we’re in that world. Not when the average person can go into a mall nutrition store and buy supplements that have been cited as having potentially dangerous amounts of heavy metals like cadmium. Not when it’s taken years for many sports to acknowledge the dangers involved with concussions. Not when scientists aren’t even clear on the dangers of anabolic steroids, let alone all of the other new substances that are out there.
This doesn’t mean that I am advocating for a free-for-all, or that I think Saturday Night Live‘s All-Drug Olympics was a great idea. I am all for the governing bodies setting limits. If it were up to me, I would probably ban more substances, including many of the painkillers. But at that point we’re talking about the rules of the game. And there’s something else about the ethics of sports that we need to acknowledge.
Athletes cheat. A lot.
Do a Google search for the phrase “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying hard enough.” It’s officially a cliché. Ask any offensive lineman if he ever got away with holding – or what goes on at the bottom of a pile after a fumble. MLB pitcher Gaylord Perry was notorious for throwing doctored balls, and he’s in the Hall of Fame. Indeed, for decades, baseball players used unprescribed amphetamines to help them get through the season. When we celebrate athletics figures who say that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, we are helping to create a culture that says, “Do whatever it takes to be the winner. Push yourself. Push your teammates. Push the rules.” If we’re looking to pro sports to find role models for fair play, we are probably looking in the wrong place.
Again, I am not saying that this means we should get rid of the rules. As a teacher, I know that when I give a test or assign a paper, there’s a good chance someone is going to cheat and that I am not going to catch that person. It doesn’t mean that I don’t set the rule. It doesn’t mean that I don’t catch who I can. It doesn’t mean that the cheater is not wrong. It just means that I should not be surprised that some people cheat, and I have to live with the knowledge that I can not be 100 percent sure that every single result is 100 percent honest. I have to do my best and live with the outcome.
We should do the same with sports. Set rules. Establish methods to check that the rules are being followed, looking for the balance point between being thorough and being reasonable. Penalize those who are caught breaking the rules. Acknowledge that some people are breaking the rules but not being caught. And enjoy the game, but be careful about drawing life lessons from it.