BALCO Blues (Or, Real Winners Do Use Drugs)

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The sports scandal involving the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) continues to grow: Not only has former Oakland A's (and current New Yawk Yankees) slugger Jason Giambi copped to using steroids, the lab's founder has said that track superstar Marion Jones juiced. And the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds has copped to unwittingly (so he claims) using steroids.

Story and more here.

Back in our January 2003 issue, Dayn Perry took a look at the media' 'roid rage and suggested:

A more objective survey of steroids' role in sports shows that their health risks, while real, have been grossly exaggerated; that the political response to steroids has been driven more by a moral panic over drug use than by the actual effects of the chemicals; and that the worst problems associated with steroids result from their black-market status rather than their inherent qualities. As for baseball's competitive integrity, steroids pose no greater threat than did other historically contingent "enhancements," ranging from batting helmets to the color line. It is possible, in fact, that many players who use steroids are not noticeably improving their performance as a result.

Whole story here.

It remains something of a mystery to me why performance-enhancing drugs remain such a bugaboo in so many professional sports. There might be certain health risks involved (such as 'roids allowing football players to bulk up to a point where they are more prone to injuring themselves and others), but the fact is that top-level sports have always sacrificed the bodies of athletes (go ask Mickey Mantle or Mark Fidrych). And athletes have certainly always taken a lead in destroying themselves for the glory of their game, whatever it might be.

The main argument against "performance enhancers" (and Dayn Perry's story above strongly suggests that drugs, stripped of very particular training programs, rarely deliver the way most people assume) is that they somehow cheapen competition and/or the accomplishments of athletes. But drugs are only one way of many that competitors seek to edge out their rivals (and let's face it, they are mostly available to all). The same can be said of secret (or newly developed) training and coaching regimens, new techniques, diets, etc. Not to mention raw athletic ability. Any of these can confer as much "unfair" advantage as a drug so if a level playing field is important, all of these should be targeted for opprobrium too.

I think athletes (and trainers and coaches) who contravene drug policies in their chosen sports should be punished–they accepted certain rules as a condition of competition.

But I suspect that much of the anxiety and loathing of drugs in particular stems from a deeply seated anxiety about the ways in which people seek to remake themselves. You can sense the same thing when people argue that changing a mental state via meditation, say, is preferable to using a drug. One way is seen as organic and natural and hence good; the other somehow synthetic and easy and hence fraudulent. That's an assumption that is less convincing the more it's considered, I think, partly because it's based on a false dichotomy between natural and artificial. Spending all day weightlifting and training and eating certain meals is natural; spending part of the day training and taking more targeted nutrients and substances is not.

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  1. In my hobby of mountaineering, climbers receive scorn for using Diamox, a drug to help with acclimitization to altitude. Others brag about not using bottled oxygen. I note none have problems using such artificial aids as crampons nor ice axe.

    Gee, what if there is something out there that makes us better? So long as it is external we embrace it?

  2. If you’re paying someone gigantic sums of money, wouldn’t you be glad that your employee is trying so hard to improve his performance? It’s not like most of these guys are doing this just for a big payoff and then shutting it all down once they sign the big contract.

  3. I don’t know if y’all at Reason heard about this yet, but you’ve been nominated for “Best 2004 Group Blog”

    Congratulations and good luck!

    http://2004weblogawards.com/archives/poll.php

  4. I’m 100% for individual choice in what they choose to put in their bodies.. but I’m not quite sure with professional sports. If steroids were to become acceptable, what would stop managers from REQUIRING their players to take these drugs? And wouldn’t a player, who decides he wants to develop his body without chemical enhancements, be at a disadvantage? Wouldn’t he be continously pressured to give in to the herd?

  5. It’s not like most of these guys are doing this just for a big payoff and then shutting it all down once they sign the big contract.

    Actually, there is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that players tend to underperform after they sign big free agent contracts.

  6. Won’t someone think of the children?!?

  7. As far as steroids go, I think Jacob Sullum likening them to breast implants is about the best justification not just for why they should be legal — but for why they should be an integral part of athletics. Plus, there’s more to the comparison. I’m sure that gay men must appreciate shots of beefed-up athletes as much as heterosexual men appreciate the wonders of the fake boob.

  8. Let’s be clear on this matter: unless you are willing to strip yourself naked and live in the woods picking berries nd catching squirrels with your bare hands, please spare from any talk of natural/unnatural. Human progress has always been a matter of giving nature the middle finger salute when desired.

  9. I’m sure that gay men must appreciate shots of beefed-up athletes as much as heterosexual men appreciate the wonders of the fake boob.

    One great thing about steroids is that carelessness can get you both beef and boobs.

  10. There are already ’employer’ pressures for atheletes in major sports to do certain activities which will help their performance, but carry risks. Many coaches are known for grueling workouts in the heat of summer. Many teams have a lot of pressure on atheletes to spend lots of off-season time at the training facility working out, getting bigger and stronger, but risking injury. Teams pressure atheletes to come back from injuries as soon as possible, even when there are risks of further injury. If chemical enhancements were allowed, pressure to use them wouldn’t be a new situation, but it would move it out into the open, and maybe allow a better discussion of costs and benefits, instead of the ‘just say no’ mantra that rules now.

    There are also lots of ways that enhancers don’t help. If you just bulk up, you can hurt your performance. Take a look at David Boston for an example.

  11. I enjoy Dayn Perry and the gang at Baseball Prospectus, but he’s incorrect about the effects of steroids. There are several studies clearly demonstrating rapid gains in muscle mass when coupled with weight training, a staple of (almost all) sports training since the 1980’s.

    Increasing the muscle mass of someone with pre-existing high bat speed = better hitter.

    Gillespie’s “natural/unnatural” musings are, while interesting, irrelevant to MLB. Players sign a contract (the enforcement of which was a libertarian principle when last I checked) that restricts their behavior to insure, among other things, an unbiased comparison with players of previous eras.

  12. In other news Hooters has lost its case. I understand the judge was able to stop laughing long enough to render an opinion.

    http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/business/national/10328718.htm?1c

  13. I don’t care what people do or how they do it.

    As a consumer (ie baseball fan) I am turned off by the sight of overblown behemoths hitting 600 foot home runs in 15-13 ballgames. It doesn’t appeal to me, so i choose not to spend my money on it. Others can do as they wish. If mlb got rid of the steroids i might be inclined to return to it, but then I might not. Hard to say.

    However, it looks to me like enough people like the game how it is, steroids and all, and it’s making a boatload of dough, so it’d be kind of silly to change the rules (ie — REALLY outlaw steroids, instead of the pretend ban they have now) just to appease the incessant wailing of the sanctimonious wankers collectively known as the sporting press.

    Apparently the fans are ok with it; its only the media filling dead air time with dead verbage that seems to be making this into any kind of big deal.

  14. I’m always inclined to thing the evils of drug use are over rated. I’m also suseptable to a ‘responcible use’ argument.

    However, like all drugs, it would be an error to depict steroids as ineffective and harmless. A friend of mine use to date a chick that ran a juice bar in a gym. It was obvious when some guy started doing roids, he’d put on 25lbs in just a few weeks, he’d break out in pimples, and he’d turn into an even bigger asshole (though now that I think about it, that could be a secondary effect from bulking up as it was generaly true that the more a guy bench pressed the bigger dick he was). And speaking of big dicks, or more approximately, small nut, I thought shriveled testicles were one of the real dangers of steroid use.

  15. Just think if this attitude was applied to 60s rock and roll. “Jim Morrison? He was on LSD when he wrote that song! What a fraud!”

  16. “Players sign a contract (the enforcement of which was a libertarian principle when last I checked) that restricts their behavior to insure, among other things, an unbiased comparison with players of previous eras.”

    Is it possible to make an unbiased comparison even absenting steroids ? Contemporary athletes have access to modern sports equipment, medical and training regimens etc that were not available back then. Steroids are just one more item in that repertoire.

  17. Gee snake, it’s not like things haven’t changed enough in baseball so that it’s easy to compare. It’s not like nutrition, training and strategy changed so much you can’t compare different eras anyways. I’m sure it’s a lot easier to hit a pitcher that pitches every 4 days and never gets relieved, so you see the same guy that’s more fatigued as opposed to seeing 4 different guys with different styles. Or limited the pool of players to white guys, keeping pitchers from facing Josh Gibson and others and protecting batters from a young Satchel Paige.

    I agree, baseball gets to make its rules and players should abide by them. Let’s not try tilt the windmill of comparison of stats to past eras, it simply can’t be done because of changes in training, nutrition and strategy. As a fairness issue, I think eliminating steroids isn’t bad, but where do you draw the line? Creatine? Weight gain 3000? Wheaties?

  18. SM – exactly. If people think steroids give athletes some unfair advantage, then they also need to ban athletes from using personal trainers, protein supplements, weight training, computer programs that enhance your understanding of how your movements can be perfected (leading to better performance), etc, etc.

    That being said, I also agree that if you sign a contract to play in a league where steroids are banned, you are violating that contract.

    Other than that, juice up!

  19. Actually, there is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that players tend to underperform after they sign big free agent contracts.

    Most of the ancedotal evidence points to the fact that those players are signed to big contracts by management ignoring the sabremetric evidence that the player is already in decline. You can’t blame the player for taking the big offer, and it’s hard to rip on the player for trying to do whatever he can to earn his money. Sure there’s ancedotal eveidence of players signing the big deal and then not giving a shit anymore and letting their bodies go to pot, but there’s more anecdotal evidence pointing toward players trying their damnedest to earn their pay, even if it’s only for the chance at another big payoff.

    Now, if you want to make the case that trying harder (in whatever form that takes) could cause your skills to diminish sooner, then you could convince me. But Barry Bonds is already in agreement in that case; he hasn’t run hard on a routine grounder to an infielder in years.

  20. Just think if this attitude was applied to 60s rock and roll. “Jim Morrison? He was on LSD when he wrote that song! What a fraud!”

    But but – Jim Morrison WAS a fraud!

  21. “Jim Morrison? He was on LSD when he wrote that song! What a fraud!”

    Todd,
    That song was already written, the LSD just coaxed it out.

    -Jim

  22. Russ, that’s why I said it was anecdotal evidance. Ya got a link to the sabermetric evidence?

    I’ve always wondered if the mega-contract generally comes after a player’s peak years.

  23. Maybe two different leagues? The regular league and the hulk league, take your pick.

  24. Doug:

    I think you’re on to something. Call them “Extreme” or “Ultimate” leagues. We’ll first have chemical-enhanced players, leaving room for future genetic engineering and cybernetics.

  25. R C,

    I’m sure you can find loads at baseballprospectus.com and baseballthinkfactory.org

  26. Maybe this is anecdotal too, but it may be due to the fact that players tend to have their best years on the walk year of their contract. For a prime example of this, see Adrian Beltre.

    I forgot who said it, but a great line wrt this phenomenon, “I could win a World Series every year if I had 25 guys on the last year of their contract.”

  27. Where’s Dick Van Patten? and Willie Aames?

  28. When the editors of Reason own a professional sports league, they can allow players to do whatever the law allows. Until then, the people who own the teams will be making most of the decisions (a notion at least some libertarians find comforting).

    Professional sports is nothing more or less than an entertainment business. As a business, the proper question is: What is more profitable, a league with steroid-juiced players or one without? Given the reaction by many Americans to the Bonds admission, I suspect MLB would make less money if it decided to open the steroid floodgates. The bottom line, however, is that my opinion doesn’t matter much because I don’t own a major league team, in part or whole.

    Oh, and I will demystify Mr. Gillespie by saying it’s all about the money. It’s why the despotic owners of teams run roughshod over personal liberties by making players wear (gasp!) identical uniforms.

  29. Sports fans recognize that “unnatural” implements are used for training and play, like headsets, helmets, weights for resistance training, etc. However, most fans have a revulsion for anything that compromises the health, or by degree, threatens the life of an athlete.

    Under this rubric, it’s easy to distinguish protein shakes from steroids. I also hope that they ban blocks from the back under the knees inside the “no-clipping zone” in football …

  30. I personally couldn’t care less what rules the leagues put in place, and I couldn’t care less what happens to players who break those rules.

    But since this is a political discussion site, can anybody give me an estimate of how much of the anti-steroid rules is the result of legal pressures, be they direct or indirect? If it’s a response to pressure from fans who at least claim that they don’t want to watch chemically-enhanced games then, well, the customer is always right. So be it.

  31. changing a mental state via meditation, say, is preferable to using a drug. One way is seen as organic and natural and hence good; the other somehow synthetic and easy and hence fraudulent…partly because it’s based on a false dichotomy between natural and artificial

    The meditators might suggest that it is about using the tools within one’s own mind and body rather than external sources. That implies the organic part, but is not the same. If Bonds took the time to build his own lab and cook his juice, he would have less time for the gym and in a way, be more self-reliant.

    There’s an integrity to the guy dry-humping the carpet. He looks like that from self-discipline, without the aid of the foundry that casts dumbells or the lab that concentrates herbs.

    It is still a line-drawing game, but maybe a different one than Gillespie proposes.

  32. Not only should steroids be banned. But also I think in the spirit of fairness some other measures are necessary. For example, those who are genetically gifted should not be allowed to get away with it. Those who are fast should wear weight packs on the back while running bases or have their feet tied together. Pitchers with unnaturally speedy fastballs should pay fines for every pitch over 95MPH. Batters with fast swings should wear wrist weights,etc,etc,etc.

    I’m probably one of the few people in the world who really doesnt get the big deal about steroids. Afterall, there are so many other factors that give players advantage. most notably genetics. While it is true that steroids do give an advantage, on the whole, other factors contribute much more. Their is no such thing as fairness in sports. Its just like life. Some people are taller, stronger, faster, and bigger. Some people had better parents ( both in genes and upbringing), were better nourished as children,etc. I know and know of individuals who take steroids and let me tell you I know guys who are juiced to the gills who are nowhere as muscular as some men who have never lifted a weight or taken a supplement ever. I could take $100K of steroids a year for 10 years and never be as big as Ronnie Coleman (well, dont want to look pregnant either)or hit like Barry Bonds.

    Of course, you will never hear a rational argument in the mainstream media. I once saw a Bio-Ethicist on Hannity for example who saw little wrong with steroid use in athletics and when he attempted to explain he was shouted down ( I dont even think Hannity was even there, it was Colmes and a fill-in. I searched for a transcript but see no evidence online if this man existing) with the required “Lyle Ayzado” chants. Thats all anyone can ever say is look at Lyle Ayzado. Well, that was 12 years ago and guys use much more today. In fact no one knows that steroids caused his cancer. Its not anymore proof than if I became a chronic masturbator and went blind in my old age that it makes you go blind. Though I think there is more of a case that steroids do harm you, but its grossly exaggerated. Also exagerated is the edge that they give you in performance.

  33. “Not only should steroids be banned. But also I think in the spirit of fairness some other measures are necessary. For example, those who are genetically gifted should not be allowed to get away with it. Those who are fast should wear weight packs on the back while running bases or have their feet tied together…”

    I suppose you’ve never heard of weight classes in boxing and wrestling, junior varsity vs. varsity football or AA and AAA vs. major league baseball?

    Obviously there are people of varying genetic advantages not to mention skill out there but usually the ones who are exceptional play in a league with other exceptional people making it somewhat balanced. Also men don’t generally compete against women, children don’t play against adults and people in wheelchairs don’t usually play basketball against the Lakers. One of the main points of organized competition is to put relatively matched athletes on a relatively level playing field in which they both follow the same rules. There are all sorts of things, including steroids, that could give a player an advantage. Using them may not be inherently wrong but if there is a rule against it than breaking that rule clearly violates the spirit of fair competition. If those rules aren’t enforced then the whole thing becames pointless. Why not have stock cars race against bicycles in the Tour de France or jet skis in the 500m relay?

  34. Nice Guy wrote:

    what would stop managers from REQUIRING their players to take these drugs?

    In baseball, the players’ union would stop it, just as they have thwarted any effective testing regime. Commish Bud Selig is dying to put one in place, but the current collective bargaining agreement doesn’t allow for it. MLB has managed to get testing implemented in the minors, where the players have less clout. Expect testing to be a stumbling block in the next contract talks. The NFL has managed to rein steroids in, as evidenced by the return of huge guts on linemen.

    That’s the way to go, IMNSHO. Get the players to agree to a level playing field. If someone who has gained his starting position without resorting to methods that would endanger his health can trust that some scrub who has taken to juicing up to grab his spot will be found out, he can resist the pressure to respond in kind. This might mean that an outfit like BALCO could still concoct elixirs not yet on the forbidden list, and the league will always be a step behind the chemists. There could be a rule that players have to take any supplements under a doctor’s care, so that their affects can be studied, and adverse ones reported to whatever body the owners and players have agreed on to determine what should be allowed. No need for any coercion.

    One ill-effect of pro athletes juicing up is that school-age athletes imitate their behavior, and what a fully grown man might be able to tolerate may do worse harm to a developing boy. I don’t have a problem with a ban on non-therapeutic use of these chemicals by kids, just as long as adults are free to follow their own physician’s advice.

    Kevin
    (could have used a HGH regimen back in Little league.)

  35. Highway called it:

    Dec 5, 3:21 PM (ET)

    NEW YORK (AP) – Miami Dolphins receiver David Boston, who has missed the entire season with a knee injury, is appealing a four-game suspension after testing positive for steroids, Fox Sports reported Sunday.

    http://sports.myway.com/news/12052004/v5752.html

    Kevin

  36. using steroids is “cheating”, because it means some people will not be equal to everyone else. we should therefore stop all practices that make some baseball players unequal to others…no weight training, no vitamins, no nutritional supps, no off-season leagues, nothing that might make a player physically better.

    can you imagine what baseball would be like if “cheating” became widespread? players might steal signs from opposing catchers. shortstops might fail to touch second base on virtually every double play. superstars like george brett might put too much pine tar on their bats and then go ballistic on the umps when called for it. hall-of-fame pitchers like gaylord perry and phil niekro might even be celebrated for doctoring the ball. thank god we don’t have to worry about “cheating” in baseball!

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