The last few weeks have seen a number of events related to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. First, the Baseball Writers Association of America refused to elect any players to the Hall of Fame for 2013, in what was generally understood as a rejection of the 1990s juiceball era. Then, Lance Armstrong confessed to Oprah that “I doped during all seven Tour [de France] wins.” Although neither the baseball writers’ rejection of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens nor Armstrong’s mea culpa was much of a surprise, it’s been a pretty dispiriting month for fans.
But why do fans care whether athletes dope? At The New Atlantis, Jeremy Rozansky tries to figure it out. He argues that we object to performance-enhancing drugs because they denature athletics by distancing the athlete from his own achievement:
An athlete builds his body, focuses his mind, and syncs the two by repeatedly practicing the activity he wishes to excel in. Muscles require strengthening; skills require honing; understanding requires study. The very act of athletic training for an activity is intelligible: as the President’s Council on Bioethics put it in its 2003 report Beyond Therapy, “we can understand the connection between effort and improvement, between activity and experience, between work and result.” The growth of muscles is naturally stimulated by certain hormones and growth factors, including testosterone. The body naturally produces a limited amount of these factors, and increasing their levels pharmacologically — or, in theory, through genetic modification — can contribute to greater-than-natural amounts of muscle growth. The doping athlete is thus partially alienated from his own activity, the activity he hopes to be excellent in. One cannot be personally, fully excellent if the excellence stems, at least in part, from a chemical intervention. Rather than cultivate his own individual gifts, he has chosen to have different gifts. Rather than “stay within himself,” he has chosen a different self. So when [former MLB pitcher] Dan Naulty exclaims “Look, my fastball went from 87 to 96! There’s got to be some sort of violation in that,” he is intuiting how athletic achievement, once the prize of a full self who toils away at his own betterment in this activity, is corroded by the innovations of laboratories.
This is a subtle argument that reflects the Aristotelian and Christian personalist inclinations of the Council that produced the 2003 report. It’s also unconvincing because its standard of excessive–the solitary development of innate physical and mental resources–has more basis in the movies than in the practices of modern sport.
The use of performance-enhancing drugs may stand out as “unnatural” in comparison an idealized vision of the athlete rising early to hit the track, or taking endless batting practice. The fact is, however, that doping does not replace these practices but only increases their results.
Naulty’s fastball, for example, gained considerable speed. But speed doesn’t count for much if a pitcher can’t also locate his pitches–a skill that cannot be acquired from drugs. Indeed, Naulty’s career provides clear evidence that no amount of drugs can turn a mediocre player into an excellent one. While Clemens’s alleged use of steroids likely allowed him to extend his career to nearly a quarter-century, Naulty played just a few unimpressive seasons.
What’s more, scientific nutrition, reliance on serious painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs, and use of high technology (such as artificial low-oxygen environment) also have performance-enhancing effects when they are combined with diligent and intelligent training. It is unclear to me, however, what makes them more fundamentally “natural” than doping.
That’s not to say “anything goes”. Professional sports have rules. And athletes should be punished for breaking those rules, whether or not they have a rational basis. More broadly, as Yascha Mounk has argued, it’s important to distinguish between substances that can be used safely under medical supervision and those that cannot. The former should be allowed; the latter should continue to be banned.
Many fans claim to prefer the “clean” game they’d like their children to enjoy. Their behavior, however, suggests that they actually like super-charged competition among super-humans. In this context, open doping under expert guidance is preferable to the cynical, unfair, and dangerous pursuit of competitive advantage. Consistency demands that we either accept what professional athletics is–a mass spectacle of nearly gladiatorial intensity–or reject the whole nasty business.