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.