OK, so this won’t exactly be a full-throated defense.
But with the Tour de France nearly upon us again, I wonder why we hate steroid use so much. After all, the reason that I know that Lance Armstrong was a phenomenal cyclist despite probably using performance-enhancing drugs, is because all the guys he beat were also on performance-enhancing drugs. The guys he beat were all doping, so at that point, it was a fair fight.
So rather than an affirmative defense, I’ll give rebuttals of the usual arguments.
It’s cheating: The rules are the rules; breaking them is wrong. Except when it isn’t. Whole sports have dedicated themselves to playing the refs in one way or another. Every era of baseball had some kind of cheating. Some legendary cheats are even celebrated as great moments in sports.
Plenty of innovations were first viewed as some form of cheat, such as the slam dunk in the basketball (which was then banned for a number of years by the NCAA). And rule-breakers and cheaters, from Bill Belichick to Ty Cobb to Karl Malone, are celebrated for their toughness, will to compete, etc.
Competition is all about finding an edge; why are PEDs any different?
Sure, it’s cheating, but how is it different from all the other cheating? Which leads us to…
It cheats the fans: Does it really? Fans love big hits, long homers, and fast cyclists. The Tour de France never had higher ratings than when a probably doped-up Lance Armstrong beat off his equally doped-up rivals. Regardless of whether or not Manny Pacquiao uses blood-doping, he’s the most exciting fighter in a generation. Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, despite being a confessed steroid user. Additionally, we like watching dirty players — Karl Malone’s elbows and Bill Romanowski’s head hits.
Besides, what about all the other new-fangled training equipment? Is that cheating the fans out of the “pure experience” as well? If a tennis player is using a super-racket or a swimmer is using high-tech fast swim gear, is that cheating the fans, too? Who doesn’t like seeing world records broken?
They’re dangerous for players: This is probably true for most PEDs, particularly anabolic steroids, which have notable health risks. But you know what else is dangerous about high-level competitive sports? Everything.
Football players get hit in the head. A lot. And it causes lifelong brain damage. But that’s fine; we’ll still cheer it on from the sidelines.
PEDs are dangerous for players, but are they notably more dangerous than the sport itself?
But think about the children!: Professional athletes are role models, and therefore, if they participate in risky cheating behavior, kids will too.
But professional athletes do all sorts of things that we wouldn’t want kids to do. Sure, we admonish them for it, but they are still treated heroically. A DUI is way riskier to the general public than an individual use of steroids, and yet, a DUI won’t get you the same kind of suspension.
Maybe it’s the connection with the sport itself that makes it dangerous. Kids want to get better at the sport and will risk their bodies to get there. Again, though, how is this worse than all the risks they take with their own bodies playing the sport. Injury rates for high school sports are quite high; notably, injury rates in competition are much higher than in practice situations. High-school coaches, as committed to winning as anyone, will push kids to work harder and risk their bodies for the game. These rates only go higher and higher as we get to the collegiate and professional levels.
If we really wanted to protect the children, we would direct them away from high-impact high-risk sports and towards low-impact low-risk sports (cross country skiing for everyone!).
But that’s not what we do.
It’s not fair to other players: This may be the most compelling argument to me; after all, what about the other players who don’t use steroids? Isn’t it unfair to them to watch their counterparts succeed while they toil in mediocrity? Indeed, the greatest victim of the steroid era might have been Ken Griffey, Jr., who hit like a machine but had to stay in the shadows of the juicers. This led him to take additional risks on the field, which further led to his series of injuries and decline.
Again, though, players are already doing everything to get an edge: regiments of personal trainers, every supplement short of performance-enhancing drugs, state-of-the-art training facilities, etc. Say a player decided he did not want to get reconstructive knee surgery because of the risk involved, and would retire instead. He would also be choosing not to use a dangerous technology to achieve an edge and stay competitive. What separates him from a player who takes the surgery and continues his career?
Part of being a professional athlete is having a marginal advantage over your opponent. An athlete chooses which risks to take and which to refuse, but PEDs are only one of many such risks that athletes consider. And richer athletes from richer teams tend to have more resources to win than poorer athletes from poorer teams. The inequity of PEDs is just an extension of the inequity of all sports spending.
Then, why does it feel so wrong?: This is the really the question that bugs me. I mean, I hate the juicers too. I want to see strict anti-doping policies. And yet, even in sports with the strictest anti-doping policies, there’s still doping (see: Contador).
PEDs are just a part of the culture of winning. We may not like them, but they are a natural outgrowth of getting the edge to win. And who doesn’t love a winner?