What Should Professional Sports Organizations Do about Players Who Use Steroids?

Article excerpt


All adults try to enhance their performance in a multitude of ways. We use cars and com-

puters to make our work more efficient. We use caffeine, alcohol and Viagra to improve our performance. We send our children to schools and Suzuki lessons to improve their cognitive and performance skills. We inject them with vaccines to enhance their immune systems.

Athletes have used performance-enhancing drugs and devices since the beginning of recorded history. Babylonians and Romans used herbs to improve their performance in battle. Naked Greeks put on shoes to run faster. Kenyan runners trained at altitude, and runners everywhere have carbo-loaded to improve their endurance.

None of these activities has been considered immoral or illegal. Why, then, are we re-enacting the Salem Witch Trials with steroids as the witch's brew? Why are our greatest athletes being threatened with imprisonment for this universal quest to succeed and excel, whether by using drugs, devices or other means?

To be sure, we have rules, and those who break the rules must suffer the penalties. But this begs the question of why we have this rule, particularly about an activity that is so distinctly human. The answers to this question seem to me morally incoherent, hypocritical or based on ice-cold wrong information. Let's look at five of the most common reasons for banning one of the myriad of performance-enhancing technologies - anabolic steroids.

First, critics say they confer an unfair advantage. But advantages are only unfair if they are unequally distributed. The usual solution is to equalize access. When Bob Seagren showed up at the 1972 Munich Olympics with a fiberglass vaulting pole, the response was to delay its use until others had a chance to practice with it but not to prohibit it.

The unfair advantage argument is further undermined by the rampant hypocrisy. In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where Ben Johnson lost his gold medal and world record because of steroid use, Janet Evans, the American swimmer, bragged about the special swimsuit that we had kept secret from the East Germans. Johnson used a drug that was available to everyone, virtually on the training room tables. Evans used secret technology, available to none of her competitors and bragged about it. The press cheered American ingenuity and made Johnson a pariah.

Bud Selig, the Major League Baseball commissioner, preaches about a level playing field, but he presides over a league in which the New York Yankees payroll is two to three times that of most of their competitors, including my beloved Milwaukee Brewers, and have failed to make the playoffs only once in 15 years.

Second, critics say that steroids are harmful, but they rely on information that is exaggerated or simply fabricated. We are told repeatedly that steroids cause heart disease, cancer and stroke. Oral testosterone was associated with liver cancer, but for decades the steroids of choice have been injectable versions of different molecules, which have not been associated with liver or any other cancer. …