Drug Policy

Recap of My Steroids Debate in NYC

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My debate last night was a lot of fun. Here's a write-up from the Associated Press.

Despite defending a pretty unpopular proposition ("We should allow performance enhancing drugs in sports"), the consensus seemed to be that our side more than held its own. We started the night with just 18 percent of the audience favoring our position. After the debate, we pulled 37 percent, winning all of the undecideds, and even pulling 4 percent from the other side. I'd say the strong showing was far more due to the excellent presentations from my co-panelists—the brave pediatrician and bioethicist Dr. Norman Fost and Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu—than to my red-meat libertarian presentation. I learned quite a bit from them, too. I think the result may also been in part due to the fact that before last night, the crowd had really never been exposed to the arguments in favor of a more open sports system. You certainly never hear them on sports talk radio.

I spoke with one journalist about the spiral into moral panic we seem to have entered with sports and steroids. He said he's been trying for months to finish a somewhat skeptical story about the issue, but can't find a doctor who will give him any honest answers. Many doctors, he said, will say off the record that steroids aren't nearly as damaging as the coverage these last several months would have you believe (not to mention that HGH is almost completely harmless), but now that Congress is demagoguing the issue and the media is in a full-blown feeding frenzy, they fear speaking the truth on the record might damage their reputations and careers.

As for our opponents, Dick Pound is your classic paternalistic zealot. He spent most of his debate time in a fit of question begging. The proposition was whether or not we should change the rules in sports to allow performance enhancing substances. Pound's response was essentially that we shouldn't change the rules because the rules themselves are moral—by virtue of the fact that they're the rules (I may be caricaturing his position, here, but only a little). Over and over, he argued that athletes enter into an agreement with professional sports organizations that they will abide by the rules, and so when they break the rules, they need to be punished. That's true, but it really had nothing to do with what we were supposed to be debating. Of course, Pound has played a huge role in crafting and enforcing the banned substances rules, so it's understandable why he'd be so attached to them.

It's not an uncommon position with illicit drugs. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a drug warrior say it would be wrong to legalize marijuana because marijuana use is harmful and immoral. Ask them to explain why it's harmful and immoral and you'll often hear that, well, it must be—because it's illegal.

Dale Murphy struck me as a authentic, decent guy who did play by the rules for all of his career, and is now bothered in part because his stats have been dwarfed by people who didn't. He also seems genuinely concerned about the state of baseball which, though I disagree with his position, I can respect.

George Michael is a friendly, jovial fellow, but frankly, he's a little nuts. His presentation was mostly anecdotes. He trotted out the corpses of Lyle Alzado and Ken Caminiti, though there isn't a doctor in the country who has positively linked either man's death to the use of steroids (Armen Keteyian, whose Sports Illustrated feature on Alzado triggered a national discussion on sports and steroids, has since admitted he misreported the story, and apologized).

Michael's presentation was also filled with off-the-record conversations he said he's had with doctors, athletes, and trainers, which was sort of hard to refute, given that we didn't know the names, positions, or agendas of the people he was talking about. He closed his presentation by mentioning some athlete he'd known who took steroids. Michael would love to ask this young athlete about the opinions coming from my panel's side of the debate, he said, "But I can't, because he's dead." Michael then added with pronounced sarcasm, "But there's no provable link to steroids!" and dramatically ripped his speech to shreds in front of the audience.

Michael also took offense to a comparison I made between the relatively modest risks of steroids and HGH and the other health risks other athletes take to excel. The example I used was horseracing, where the athletes subject themselves to sweat boxes, diuretics, eating disorders, and all sorts of other damaging weight-control techniques. Michael, a horse breeder, was offended that I'd make such accusations—until he realized I was talking about the jockeys, not the horses. Oddly, that didn't seem to bother him as much.

Bob Costas is friendly, surprisingly approachable, and as fanatical and knowledgeable about sports as you might imagine. I thought he was a terrific moderator, despite conceding before the debate that he wasn't crazy about our position.

I also now have this surreal image forever burned into my head of, backstage, legendary sportscaster Bob Costas holding a small white box, walking up two-time baseball MVP Dale Murphy and saying, "Hey Dale, would you like to try one of my delicious pumpkin cookies?"

In all it was a fun night, and the Rosenkranz foundation did a fantastic job putting the whole thing on.

There should be audio soon, video in about a month, and I'll post the text of my speech later this week.

NEXT: Who Wrote Ron Paul's Newsletters?

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  1. I have no problem with sports pundits labeling the 90s and early 00s “The Steroid Era” so long as they in turn label the 60s and 70s “The Amphetamines Era”, the 40s and 50s “The Booze Era”, etc. etc. Real baseball fans know the history of the game and judge its athletes accordingly.

  2. For all Radley’s belief that this is slam-dunk obvious, I suspect that, as long as pro sports exist, we will end up with fuzzy lines; arbitrary rules that attempt to police those lines as if they were hard and fast; players that push the limits of these rules; and then a fraction of those who are shamed as cheats.

  3. If some players, coaches, etc. want to use performance enhancing drugs in sports, it should not be illegal. If they cannot persuade the currently existing leagues to change the rules to suit them, they should start their own league, or simply follow the rules that they agreed to when they signed their contracts, or find another job. Enough fans (who are the customers) find steroid use troublesome, even if for amorphous reasons, that the league is fulfilling the market demand by attempting to supply drug-free athletic entertainment. Players who cheat on the no-steroid requirement are defrauding the customers.

    My $0.02.

  4. If you want to be cosistent about prohibiting artificial enhancements, shouldn’t eyeglasses, contacts and stainless steel pins holding bones together be prohibited as well?

    Standard Libertarian Disclaimers #2 (personal control of one’s body)and #4c (contracts between owner and labor) apply.

  5. They need to kill the myth that baseball records are somehow comparable between eras. Steroids aside, it is a completely different game now than it was even 30 years ago. If they had had arthriscopic knee surgery in the 1950s, my guess is that Bonds would have been chasing Mickey Mantles homerun record. Players in the past didn’t understand conditioning and weight lifting techniques. People make a lot about Ruth hitting his homeruns in a segregated league, but then never consider the fact that Aaron his a lot of his homeruns before Latin players were extensively scouted and signed to major league clubs. How many times did Aaron and Ruth hit homeruns off of tired starters or third rate relivers in the 8th and 9th innings whereas now they would be facing top flight pitchers like Marano Rivera or Jonath Paplebon. Of course players of the past didn’t have near the medical care players do now and many times had to work in the off season to make ends meet. Who is better? Who knows, you can’t compare them.

    Without testing, we have no idea who was juicing and who wasn’t. How do we know that Cal Ripkin didn’t use HGH to recover from injuries to keep his streak going? We don’t. At this point you either let everyone in from this era or no one into the Hall of Fame.

  6. We started the night with just 18 percent of the audience favoring our position. After the debate, we pulled 37 percent, winning all of the undecideds, and even pulling 4 percent from the other side.

    It’s gratifying to see some people can still be swayed by (wait for it…) reason.

  7. “The Booze Era”

    What a great band name.

  8. The sports leagues are selling a product, and to them that product is a family-friendly experience. They want to paint all-American images of a neighborhood touch football game, or a father inexplicably playing catcher while his son plays t-ball. What they don’t want is to be seen as some kind of frankenstein game inaccessible to everyday folks.

    Congress clearly has no business getting involved. But I can understand the motives of the sports leagues. I figure it this way: the hardcore sports fans who would be OK with seeing juiced players are not going to stop watching football because of a lack of juice, but potential fans, kids, dorks, etc., might not be interested in juiced sports.

  9. Well, somebody has to do it:

    As for our opponents, Dick Pound . . .

    [snerk]

  10. I’m sorry, but when I saw Radley’s original post about this event I couldn’t help but be struck by two thoughts: (1) what was Radley’s qualification to be there other than that he’s a 32 year old libertarian from Reason’s staff. (2) and now we get to see the ugly underbelly of libertarianism elevated to ideology.

    See one can debate all you want about whether its dangerous to health, whether athletes take already take risks, body autonomy, etc. and still not be talking about the subject: sports. This is the problem when you don’t let the object of study determine the method of study.

    The real question is: what is the meaning of sports and is permitting performance-enhancing drugs something that’s in conflict with that. Until you address that head on, you aren’t tackling the subject. You are applying a neat little ideological schema to areas of life it may not be well suited to give a meaningful answer.

  11. What’s funny about Dick Pound? I have a vewy gweat fwiend in Wome named Dick Pound!

    He has a wife, you know. You know what she’s called? Incontinentia. Incontinentia Buttocks.

  12. “The real question is: what is the meaning of sports.”

    Professional sports are a product, bought and sold like any other.

  13. Building off of anon’s comment, I think it’s important to keep in mind that there are two issues here. The first is whether the government should be involved in this whole steroid mess, and the second is how baseball should be handling this internally. Personally, I think that libertarian principles apply to the first issue but not the second. As a libertarian, I don’t think Congress should be messing with any of this. As a baseball fan, however, I think steroids has clearly tainted the game and should have been addressed a long time ago. I think it’s important to keep the two distinct when debating these issues, and my guess is that Radley was addressing the one issue while Dale Murphy was addressing the other.

  14. He trotted out the corpses of Lyle Alzado and Ken Caminiti, though there isn’t a doctor in the country who has positively linked either man’s death to the use of steroids

    If steroid abuse really is as dangerous as they claim, shouldn’t we have many more Lyle Alzados and Caminitis than we’ve had? It’s certainly not as if they were the only steroid users from their eras. If they were, there wouldn’t be any need for these proceedings.

    I also notice that the sportwriters have taken the drug warrior favorite”all use is abuse, all abuse is extreme abuse(much like thirty seconds exposure to second hand smoke can induce a heart attack)” approach when discussing steroids, almost to preemptively dismiss the utility of such drugs in recovery from injuries. That use is apparently morally wrong as well.

  15. This guy will not be allowed to participate in Beijing. Thoughts?

  16. “Professional sports are a product, bought and sold like any other.”

    And this reduction of all of life to a commodity is exactly why libertarianism won’t gain popular acceptance. It flies in the face of the truth taught by everyone’s experiences and that is that life is more than a collection of commodity transactions.

    Yes, professional sports is an entertainment product. But it is a unique one that is built on something called sports. A failure to examining what the meaning of sports is, or to a priori assume that all meaning is a construct and thus it’s not even worth the exercises, is a mistake.

  17. And this reduction of all of life to a commodity is exactly why libertarianism won’t gain popular acceptance. It flies in the face of the truth taught by everyone’s experiences and that is that life is more than a collection of commodity transactions.

    Yes, professional sports is an entertainment product. But it is a unique one that is built on something called sports. A failure to examining what the meaning of sports is, or to a priori assume that all meaning is a construct and thus it’s not even worth the exercises, is a mistake.

    Saints preserve us! Another transcendentalism-of-sports mythologist!

  18. In a country that has many people taking drugs for birth control,allergies,depression and getting a hard on ect. ,why shouldn’t players do the same for their job?It is a job after all.How many people go to work and have a good chance of injury?How many have a job where having surgery to work is the norm?The ‘fans’ are nothing more than modern Roman spectators .They think they own the game and are owed more than a afternoons entertainment.Of course,when the player goes down or becomes to old,they are discarded like trash.All for the sake of ‘sport’.

  19. I think “sports” means different things to different people. I’m sure there are people who buy into the whole mythology about legendary conflict between good and bad guys determined by heart and guts. There are people out who love all the vignettes that get played around the Olympics that indicate who the public should be rooting for. There are those who see sport as the vehicle to improve their financial situation. There are people who genuine love the meritocracy that competition seems to provide.

    For some(and I would even say most), it is and entertainment product, no different than watching a movie. These people don’t care what athletes need to do to play on Sunday or every day, as in baseball. They want to see the sort of towering home runs and devastating tackles that the get when playing the video game versions of those sports.

    This is supported by the huge attendance numbers that Baseball has had throughout the so-called “steroid era”, and that football always has.

    None of this is to say that the leagues shouldn’t have their own rules regarding what players are allowed to take. I just don’t believe that there is an actual public outcry for congressional hearings to “clean up” sports.

  20. “Saints preserve us! Another transcendentalism-of-sports mythologist!”

    Oh, yes, someone dare raises the notion that there might be more to the thing than a commodty exchange and he’s being excused of being a mythologist. I’d suggest looking into the mirror of your own life experience. If you are telling me there’s nothing that goes beyond commodity exchange in all of your web of relationships and values, then I’ll give you consistency, at least.

    Silly me to think there’s something mythological about arguing for a process that doesn’t dismiss possibilities a priori. One would have thought that I was being far more rational and scientific than that, but oops, I hafa a definition of reason that actually allows for the accounting of all factors.

  21. BTW, I’m not suggesting an answer one way or the other on the question of performance enhancing drugs. I’m just suggesting that the conversation seems to have jack to do with sports. As many of you have demonstrated in your responses to me, you may as well be talking about any business, job or profession with these reasons. Which is of course to conclude that there’s nothing different about sports than these other things. My question is this: is that a conscious choice you are making based on an examination of the evidence or just a pre-conception/assumption you bring to the table that you really haven’t examined for validity in this circumstance?

  22. That should have been “Silly me to think there’s NOT something mythological …” in my earlier post.

  23. I am a purist but I am realistic enough to know that I am pissing against the wind on this issue. Steroids are unsafe and bad for your health now, but in 20 years I am sure they won’t be. Further, as genetic engineering becomes more common and more advanced, I have no doubt there will be people who will be engineered in the womb to be great athletes. What do you do about that? The post human future is nearly upon us. There is no stopping it. Barry Bonds’ huge head and obscene offensive numbers are just the messanger.

  24. Did you hear about the scandal in disc golf? Apparently some participants are not smoking the cheeba!

  25. I’d suggest looking into the mirror of your own life experience.

    I speak as a former (NCAA div III) college football player, who played in front of crowds frequently numbering in the dozens. I played because I loved to play.

    If I had wanted to play professional football, I would have considered the use of steroids a rational investment in future earning power, and as a hedge against injury.

    Nowadays, I ski. Because I love to ski.

  26. “I would have considered the use of steroids a rational investment in future earning power, and as a hedge against injury”

    Steroids would have made you more injury prone. They build your muscle mass but can’t build your tendons and joints. There is a reason why Mark Mcquire would hit 50 homeruns one year and then be on the DL the next with knee and joint problems.

  27. Steroids would have made you more injury prone. They build your muscle mass but can’t build your tendons and joints.

    This is, I believe, an old wives’ tale. There is probably some truth in it, but you have to ignore a lot of variables to make this sort of blanket assertion. Like saying, “My grandfather, the shipfitter/ welder, who learned to smoke when he was working on Liberty Ships, died from lung disease due to smoking.”

  28. “If you are telling me there’s nothing that goes beyond commodity exchange in all of your web of relationships and values, then I’ll give you consistency, at least.”

    Ummm…anon, before you get your panties too much more in a bunch, I’d like to point out the obvious fact that the person you’re responding to was talking about _sports_, not everything in his “web of relationships and values.”

    Now, carry on with your panty-bunching.

  29. panty-bunching? Yes, how fitting a sign of a willingness to engage in a dialogue of ideas. Why libertarians are just so different than other idealogues.

    A comment thread is a comment thread. I hardlly see much wrong with posting a few comments. That I suggest that people look at their methods not just in the abstract but in the concrete reality of experience is uncomfortable.

    But hey, your party.

  30. “That I suggest that people look at their methods not just in the abstract but in the concrete reality of experience is uncomfortable.”

    Aww, that’s so cute that you think that’s what you were doing. In fact, what you were doing in the comment I quoted from was misrepresenting (perhaps deliberately, but I assume just through poor reading skills) a previous comment then making pissy statements, which I’m sure you considered terribly clever, about “silly” you were to try to be “rational.” That doesn’t really bear much resemblance to “engag[ing] in a dialogue of ideas.”

  31. I have no doubt there will be people who will be engineered in the womb to be great athletes. What do you do about that? The post human future is nearly upon us. There is no stopping it. Barry Bonds’ huge head and obscene offensive numbers are just the messanger.

    John,

    You are so full of nonsense with that post because … hmmm … well … oooh …just …

    It’s going to be one hell of an interesting ride.

  32. The real question is: what is the meaning of sports and is permitting performance-enhancing drugs something that’s in conflict with that.

    Moronic drivel such as this is what enables the International Olympic Committee to treat athletes like chattel property.

  33. Ha ha, his name is “Dick Pound”.

  34. It’s not an uncommon position with illicit drugs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a drug warrior say it would be wrong to legalize marijuana because marijuana use is harmful and immoral. Ask them to explain why it’s harmful and immoral and you’ll often hear that, well, it must be-because it’s illegal.

    I agree with that about marijuana. But I don’t think the prohibition against pot translates to steroids in professional sports. If my co-worker smokes pot on the weekends, it does not effect me at all. No incentive is created for me to smoke pot. If I’m a pro athlete and my competitor does steroids, that does effect me tremendously. A huge incentive is created for me to, “keep up”.

    Maybe steroids are harmless. But I think that this question is important and until they are proven harmless, erring on the side of caution is ok. I couldn’t care less whether pot or cocaine is harmless or not because there is no incentive pushing me to take those drugs.

    So for this libertarian, legalize everything but steroids in sports until they have been proven benign.

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