01-02-2005, 01:08 AM #1
Critics overreact to steroids (Article)
Whether or not there is such a thing as steroid rage is debatable, but there is no doubt about steroid hysteria. The federal indictments against four men accused of distributing steroids to top athletes, including Barry Bonds’ personal trainer, have triggered another wave of moral outrage about the use of performance-enhancing drugs and steroids in particular.
There is near unanimity that use of these drugs — widely called “doping” to get you in the right frame of mind — should be banned because they are unfair, unnatural, harmful, coercive and undermine fans’ confidence and trust. But these claims are incoherent, disingenuous, hypocritical, unsubstantiated, exaggerated or just plain false.
Let’s start with fair competition. It certainly would be ideal if athletic competition were based on native talent and character. That, of course, is rarely the case. Training facilities, coaches, even medical care are unevenly distributed.
In team sports, the tolerance for unfair competition is most evident, with the New York Yankees competing with a payroll six times that of the Milwaukee Brewers. In wrestling and boxing, we at least try to match opponents by size. Why not in basketball and football? If we really cared about fairness, there could be a limit on total poundage for the interior linemen or total height for a basketball team.
The irony about the claims that performance-enhancing drugs are unfair is the concurrent outcry about how widespread their use has become. Retired star Ken Caminiti’s claim that half of Major League Baseball players are using steroids suggests that the drugs are readily available. If that isn’t the case, why not just make them more available, preferably under medical supervision, rather than relying on an obviously inadequate testing system that does result in unequal access?
The hypocrisy of the unfairness argument was never more evident than in the case of Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who lost his gold medal in the 1988 Olympics after testing positive for anabolic steroids. While Johnson was defending himself, Janet Evans, the American swimmer, bragged about the critical boost she got from her greasy swimsuit, developed by American ingenuity and kept secret from the hated East Germans. Johnson, using an assist that was widely available, was banned for life from Olympic competition. Evans became America’s sweetheart.
The claim that steroids should be banned because they are harmful is suspect for two reasons: Empirically, the harms are wildly exaggerated, and morally this kind of paternalism is frowned on in American society.
Anabolic steroids do have well-documented side effects, many of them cosmetic or reversible, such as changes in hair distribution, voice changes or infertility. But the exaggeration of more serious harms in leading lay publications is persistent.
Leading media repeatedly warn of liver cancer — a risk with earlier oral steroids , but not with modern injectable forms. The litany of risks includes unsubstantiated or overstated claims about heart disease. Long-term use can change the blood lipid count unfavorably, but that’s a long way from a heart attack.
Whatever the risks, they are minuscule compared to the risks of sport itself. Why should competent adults be allowed to decide for themselves whether to play professional football, but not make an informed choice to use steroids ? The risks of permanent disability after three years in the National Football League are logarithmically higher than any risk of using steroids.
Closely tied to claims about harm is the argument that steroid use is coercive: If I use them, the argument goes, then my opponents are somehow forced to use them too.
But athletes are free to walk away if they find it unappealing. Calling these choices coercive reflects a failure to distinguish between an opportunity and a threat.
The claim that steroids are immoral because they are unnatural is even more incoherent. Ever since the first Greek runner put on shoes, athletes have been using unnatural assists, external and internal, to enhance performance. Is there something unwholesome about using a Nautilus machine, rather than lifting rocks? Does the fact that Gatorade comes from a factory rather than a mountain stream shed any light on the morality of its use?
Sports are games, invented by people, with ever-changing rules. They can be anything we want them to be. The forward pass was considered a threat to the integrity of football until everyone got used to it and decided that the new game was more interesting. This is a debate about preferences, not about morality.
Whatever the method, this is about trying to enhance performance by enriching one’s blood to abnormal levels. If the concern is about fairness, competitors should be screened and matched for hemoglobin level. If it is acceptable to achieve a higher level by living and training at high altitude, why should it be immoral to train in a chamber with low oxygen?
Finally, steroid opponents claim that the drugs’ widespread use undermines the fans’ trust in the integrity of a sport and undermines fan support. But Barry Bonds, commonly alleged to use steroids, and Mark McGwire, who admitted to using a mild steroid precursor, attracted more fans to baseball than any other players in the last decade. The fans just want to see powerful hitters hit the ball as hard and far as possible.
None of these observations should be applied to children, where the harms, such as stunted growth, are real and irreversible, and where claims of informed choices do not apply. But central to American tradition is the belief that a competent adult should be free to live his life the way he wants, so long as he is not causing harm to others. Without a more coherent moral explanation for the steroid frenzy that most recently greeted baseball players, we are left to speculate about other motives.
Norman Fost is professor of pediatrics and director of the program in medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin Medical School.
01-02-2005, 09:41 PM #2
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