Bush on Steroids

Why must sports be drug-free?


In one of the more puzzling parts of his State of the Union speech, President Bush offered his opinion about how professional sports should be run. He did not criticize the instant replay rule, condemn the use of designated hitters, or tell returning head coach Joe Gibbs how to restore the Redskins to their former glory. Instead, he asserted that athletes should not be permitted to use "performance-enhancing drugs like steroids."

Bush stated this principle as if it were obviously true, as if no reasonable person could disagree that "team owners, union representatives, coaches, and players" need to "get rid of steroids now." Yet the more you think about it, the less sense there is to a rule that prohibits athletes from using drugs to enhance their performance.

One reason the president offered is that such drugs are "dangerous." Compared to what? Football players routinely get knocked around by 300-pound behemoths. They and other professional athletes frequently suffer injuries—pulled hamstrings, concussions, torn ligaments, busted knees, separated shoulders—that may force them out of the game for months or leave them with lifelong disabilities. If avoiding danger were their main concern, they would not be playing to begin with.

In any case, as sports writer Dayn Perry shows in the January 2003 issue of Reason, the hazards of anabolic steroids have been greatly exaggerated. After looking at the scientific literature and interviewing experts, Perry concludes that steroids can be used with reasonable safety by adults under medical supervision.

The irony is that legal restrictions and league bans on steroids discourage athletes who use them from seeking medical guidance, so they're more at risk than they would be if steroid use were permitted. As with recreational drugs, prohibition makes steroids more dangerous, not less.

Safety was not the only issue the president raised. He also said using performance-enhancing drugs "sends the wrong message: that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character."

A man who owes so much to inherited wealth and his family's political connections probably should not broach the topic of "shortcuts to accomplishment." Not all shortcuts come in pills or capsules.

An athlete who uses the latest exercise equipment, fitness knowledge, and nutritional expertise to get into shape is using shortcuts that were unavailable to his predecessors 30 or 40 years ago. More fundamentally, all professional athletes benefit from the shortcut known as talent: Because of their genetic endowments, they are stronger, faster, or more agile than most people.

Athletes, like everyone else, are rightly judged by what they do with the advantages they had at birth. But if their innate abilities do not negate their accomplishments, why would their use of artificial enhancements that are available to everyone?

Craig Masback, chief executive of USA Track and Field, praised Bush's anti-steroid comments, saying "cheating by our star athletes sends the wrong message." Yet using drugs to boost performance is cheating only if it violates a rule, such as the ban on steroids maintained by the Olympics and the NFL.

If all athletes were allowed to use chemical aids, those who chose to do so would not have an unfair advantage any more than an actress with breast implants does. And just as it is possible to enjoy an actress's performance despite her artificial enhancements, it should be possible to enjoy a football or baseball game despite the use of steroids or stimulants—and obviously it is, since fan interest in these sports has not exactly evaporated in recent years, despite periodic doping scandals.

"No result in any elite sport can be trusted with reasonable certainty to have been achieved without performance-enhancing drugs," New York Times sports writer Jere Longman declared last fall. At the same time, he conceded, "whether fans believe this or care is another matter."

Donald Catlin, director of the Olympic drug testing lab at UCLA, told Longman, "In a way, if all the top athletes were on drugs, they would be on an equal footing again." While Catlin views that prospect with distaste, it's not clear why.

Two decades ago, in their book Drug Control in a Free Society, James B. Bakalar and Lester Grinspoon noted that "it seems almost self-evident to most people today that using drugs in athletic competition is wrong," but "it is curiously difficult and complicated to justify that position." A presidential endorsement does not make the task any easier.