Should We Allow Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sports?

One argument in favor.

On January 15, Reason Senior Editor Radley Balko participated in a debate in New York City on the topic of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, sponsored by Intelligence Squared. Video text of his initial argument follow. Check this YouTube page for video of the other presentations, rebuttals, and Q&A.

On the train ride from D.C. this morning, we passed through Baltimore. It reminded me of one of my favorite authors, Baltimore native H.L. Mencken, who I think would’ve had a good laugh at the hypocrisy, the posturing, and the moral prudery associated with the steroid controversy. Eighty years ago, Mencken aptly summarized this debate when he wrote, quote:

“The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it.”


Let me start by saying that I believe private sports organizations should be able to set their own rules, and that they should be free to discipline in any manner they see fit the players who break those rules. I don’t think Congress should forcibly allow performance enhancing substances in sports any more than I think Congress should prohibit them.

That said, we’re here today to debate what those rules ought to be.

So why exactly do people to ban some substances from professional sports?

If it’s about fairness and competition, I’m dubious. Take Rep. Tom Davis, one of the more camera-hungry politicians to demagogue this issue. After the 2000 census, Rep. Davis maneuvered to have his congressional district gerrymandered to include as many Republicans as possible, ensuring his continual reelection, and limiting the number of real options for his constituents. He ran the next year unopposed. Davis also snuck a provision into an unrelated piece of federal legislation preventing an apartment complex from going up in his district because, he said, he feared it would bring too many Democrats into his district.

This guy is cheating at democracy, and he’s lecturing baseball players about fairness.

It’s hard to believe the steroid panic is really about the safety of our athletes, either. My copanelist Dr. Fost I think has ably shown that the alleged side affects of anabolic steroids are overstated, and the negative side effects of HGH are negligible at best.

If we want to talk about health risks and professional sports, we might discuss the ballooning, unrelated-to-steroids weight of NFL linemen over the last 20 years, and the corresponding drop in life expectancy that’s come with it.

Or we might talk about the particularly hellish world of thoroughbred horseracing jockeys, who subject themselves to sweatboxes, diuretics and suppositories, and intentional eating disorders.

In fact, any world-class athlete subjects his body to stresses it wasn’t really designed to endure.

As we’ve seen with government bans on consensual activity—from alcohol to gambling to cocaine to prostitution—prohibitions not only don’t work, they make the activity in question more dangerous by pushing it underground.

So what about the children? As with just about every paternalistic policy dating back to alcohol prohibition, many a politician has iterated over the last few years that we need to ban performance enhancing drugs “for the children.”

But survey data actually shows that teen steroid use has mirrored the use of other illicit drugs over the years. It went up mildly in the 1990s, and has since either dropped slightly or leveled off since 2000. It’s likely that the same trends that govern cocaine or marijuana use govern teen steroid use far more than what’s happening in the sports pages.

In fact, a study released last year—and of the few studies to attempt to find out what motivates teens to take steroids—found that the most reliable indicator of steroid use was a teen’s own body image and self-esteem.

The suggestion—and I think we can all agree it’s pretty intuitive-- is that the teenage boys who do take steroids do so not because they want to look like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire, but because they want to look good for teenage girls.

So what is this debate really all about?

I’d submit it’s about paternalism and control. A few luddites and prudes have successfully induced a full-blown moral panic over a set of substances that for whatever reason have attracted the ire of the people who have made it their job to tell us what is and isn’t good for us.

Our society has an oddly schizophrenic relationship with pharmaceuticals and medical technology. If something can be said to be “natural”, we tend to be okay with it. If it seems lab-made or synthetic we tend to be leery. But even synthetic drugs and manmade technology seem to be okay if the aim is to make sick or broken people whole again.

It’s when we talk about expanding or transcending what we’ve come to consider “normal,” be it through psychoactive drugs, performance-enhancing drugs, or genetic or biomedical technology, that a certain uneasiness sets in.

There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month about university professors taking stimulants like Adderall to increase their academic productivity. Oddly, the article quoted several professors who considered this "cheating" at academics. I have to confess, I don’t understand this way of thinking. Academics is the search for truth and knowledge. If a drug can make that search more productive with few side effects, why in the world wouldn’t you want to take it?

It’s also important to note that we consider perfectly natural and acceptable today was quite out of the ordinary not so long ago. 100 years ago, life expectancy in the U.S. was 50 years of age. Today it’s 78. Thanks to technology, medicine, and pharmaceuticals we are today taller, stronger, faster, healthier, and can expect to live longer than ever before. Genetically enhanced agriculture, anti-aging technology, and other advancements we’ve yet to see today—all of which seem as foreign to us now as penicillin likely seemed 50 years ago—will push our longevity even higher.

It’s an old cliché that sports is a metaphor for the human condition. But there’s a lot of truth to it. As technology helped humanity obliterate these milestones and move beyond what until 100 years ago had been a long, bleak history, similar advances in nutrition, training, and using technology to improve technique have enabled sports records to fall with astonishing regularity. Tennis players serve in excess of 120 mph. Record times in the 100, 200, mile, and marathon continue to crumble.

Sports is about exploring and stretching the limits of human potential. Going back even to the pre-modern Olympics, when athletes ate live bees and ate crushed sheep testicles to get a leg up on the competition, sports has never been some wholesome display of physical ability alone. Ingenuity, innovation, and knowledge about what makes us faster and stronger (and avoiding what might do more harm than good) has always been a part of the game.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that many of the biggest proponents of banning performance enhancing drugs in sports are also suspect of continued advances in human achievement. Take Leon Kass, formerly President Bush’s top advisor on bioethics. The same Mr. Kass who champions rigorous drug testing in sports has also spent much of his career actually lamenting rising average human life expectancy, which he considers contrary to some odd concept of the natural order.

Of course there have been luddites and naturalists like Mr. Kass standing athwart the tide of human progress for much of recorded history. The essence of the disagreement today I think is that people like Mr. Kass and Mr. Pound have a decidedly different definition of what’s pure, natural, and human that what I do.

For me, the essence of humanity is the pursuit of knowledge, and broadening and conquering the outer limits of our potential. For others, “human” by definition entails concrete limitations—it’s more about adhering to and abiding by well-defined historical, cultural, moral, and philosophical concepts of personhood. I’d like to live to be 150. Leon Kass believes we should all be content with 75.

I think each of us ought to be free to choose and pursue our respective notions of humanity as we may. Let there be sports leagues that thrive on “pure sport,” whatever that is, and let there be sports leagues where athletes are left to balance their own health and career longevity with technology, pharamacology, and the quest for a competitive advantage. If Mr. Kass wants to volunteer to be euthanized at 75, that’s his prerogative. Me, I’ll eagerly lap up what science can conjure—both to extend my life, and to better appreciate and enjoy it while I’m living it.

Unfortunately many who take our opponents position aren’t content with merely holding adhering to their own view of what’s human and what’s acceptably “natural.” They demand that the rest of us accept their concept of humanity, too. People like Mr. Pound and Mr. Kass want Congress and other government bodies to impose their will on society. Because they, better than we, know what’s best for us.

Of course even if they’re right and I’m wrong about the morality and propriety of some of these issues, a free society isn’t really free at all if it doesn’t include the freedom to make what some may believe are bad decisions.

Our opponents want to legislate away what they believe are the bad decisions. To borrow from H.L. Mencken, they believe they need to rule sports in order to save it.

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