With the jury deliberating in the Barry Bonds trial, one of my students asked me to blog about steroids. My student’s basic view is that people have the right to take whatever they want to enhance their performance, as long as they are willing to live with the personal consequences. This is a viewpoint commonly applied to drinking, smoking, and other personal choices. And it is probably more appealing when it comes to performance enhancing drugs, because smoking and drinking have more easily recognized externalities, or consequences to others, such as second-hand smoke and a variety of alcohol-induced behaviors.
I am in favor of steroids. My son is able to see clearly because of steroids that have been planted in his eyes as “seeds” that leech out a little bit at a time over multiple years. I am also against steroids. I have seen how oral steroids affected his body when he had to take them over a modest period as a young boy. I am very thankful for the more targeted steroids that help his vision.
So I am in favor of steroids. I am just not in favor of steroids used to enhance performance in sports.
Sports generally evolve in one of three ways: changes in equipment, changes in rules, or changes in people. There is almost always disagreement about whether these changes are good or bad. But let me provide an example of each.
Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article about bats that have been banned from Little League this year because of dangers to players. These titanium composite bats apparently get springier with use, launching balls at speeds not experienced by past Little Leaguers. I admit to being jealous of today’s bats, because I was a lousy hitter with the old wooden bats growing up. But the fact that you can hit the ball farther and harder is not necessarily a good thing, particularly when you are hitting it at people who are just learning to use a glove.
Of course, many changes in equipment are designed to provide additional protection, such as better designed football helmets. The unintended consequence of equipment that makes players feel safer can be an unlimited amount of spearing with the helmet, leading to serious injuries for the tackler and the ball carrier.
Swimming changed equipment by allowing buoyant, full body suits. But as record after record disappeared, it quickly became evident that the swimmers were not any better. The records were being set by the equipment. And the swimming establishment pulled back, banning the suits. Golf has not pulled back as quickly from advances in clubs and golf ball materials. You can always make fairways narrower and rough deeper, greens more challenging. But at some point, when people are driving par 5’s, the nature of the game will change in a way where it becomes unrecognizable.
The second way that sports evolve is through changes in rules, often to generate more offense. Baseball added the designated hitter, for example. Purists hate it, fans love it. As with most changes, the market decides whether it stays. In 1968, when pitching was dominant, major league baseball lowered the pitching mound and hitting proliferated. Three-pointers are here to stay in basketball. If soccer changed the offside rule, the game would change dramatically.
The final way sports change is through changing people, the athletes themselves. This has happened through nutrition, particularly in the last generation. Many baseball fans my age can remember Charlie Hough of the Texas Rangers smoking between innings in the runway between the dugout and the clubhouse. Now, you need a personal trainer by the time you are fifteen if you hope to compete at a high level. Most would say better nutrition is a good thing.
Pressures change people, too. My buddies in my Little League played in the Little League World Series Championship game on ABC Wide World of Sports. None of them played on travel teams, or had personal trainers. None of my friends went to a baseball camp. We played hotbox, and whiffle ball, and backyard baseball. And then we played every other sport in its season. Now you have to specialize.
And steroids in sport are largely a result of the competitive setting that arises from specialization. Specialization and excellence allow people to get rich, and steroids provide an advantage. Like better nutrition, they change people physically, and there is evidence that they change them emotionally as well. The question is whether they change them for the better.
I have seen steroids provide healing. But even in settings with carefully controlled doses, I have also seen them cause damage. And steroids in sports are not carefully controlled. If they were, human nature says athletes would push past those limits and game the system to gain an advantage (think Tour de France). The drugs are new enough, and they change often enough, that it is difficult to estimate long-term effects. But, as with most things that provide short-term benefit, the tendency is to underestimate long-term harm if you are making the decision.
What seems certain is that, over time, steroids will exclude the non-steroid user from the game. There are a fixed number of slots available on pro teams, and college teams, and high school teams. Today’s good high school teams are like the last generation’s small college teams. It will become evident that you do not play if you do not take steroids. And, as with personal trainers and travel teams, steroids will be taken at younger and younger ages.
As the Little League article in the Wall Street Journal indicates, we pull back from other types of changes in sports because we see the potential for people to be harmed at significant levels. I could use dramatic examples of what steroids have done to people like former NFL stars Lyle Alzado and Mike Webster. But suffice it to say that steroids have the potential to do untold damage when compared to differences in equipment, especially when they are taken for advantage, and not simply for healing.
I cannot safely predict what a generation of athletes who were virtually all on steroids would be like in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. But if it happens, the effects of their choices will not just be limited to what happens to their bodies. I can make serious justice arguments against allowing steroids in sports. But even if they are refuted, those unintended consequences that arise from changing people, not just equipment or rules, weigh heavy on my mind. It takes a lot for me to support restricting people’s freedom. But steroids should be banned from sports.
Categories: Bottom Line Ethics