All the Rage

03.03.14

Maybe We Should Just Legalize Steroids for Pro Athletes

If athletes are aware of the dangers of performance enhancing drugs and are willing to do so anyway, shouldn’t that be a risk that they have the right to take?

Travis T. Tygart, the Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was seated in a plush chair on the raised stage, his fingers intertwined. To his left was Tyler Hamilton, a retired pro cyclist and former member of Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Tour de France team, slumped forward, his head slightly bowed. He appears weary but grimly determined; a pose not dissimilar to that of a soldier fighting a war that he fears he cannot ultimately win yet refuses to surrender.

To the throng of eager, data analyzing, current and future sports executives at the the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Conference, Tygart said, “The analytics are only as good as the foundation upon which they’re based. And if they’re not pure—if drugs that influence the numbers—everything else you’re doing at this conference is almost rendered meaningless.”

But is it? Tygart and Hamilton’s presentation was meant to be an object lesson in the evils of performance enhancing drugs, or PEDs. But instead of moral outrage, I left not knowing who the evildoers were and if there was anything “evil” occurring at all.

Tygart’s warning shot was fired in room 304 of the Hynes Convention Center in Boston for the Sloan Conference, a massive gathering of the self-anointed best and brightest to explore the newest, wild frontiers in sports analytics. The exception was this oddball panel entitled, “Risking it All: Why Championship Athletes Dope and What it Means for Sport.” And If Tygart was the crusading general, Hamilton, the cyclist to his left, was one of the casualties.

Hamilton got busted for PED’s at the peak of his career, right after he nabbed the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athena. For years afterward, he vehemently denied all charges, slinging excuses that are all-too-familiar to anyone who’s suffered through any of Alex Rodriguez’s or Barry Bonds’ moon-faced, clenched-jaw denials—the testing process itself was flawed, there was some mishap with his blood by a bumbling, overworked lab geek, attempts to discredit the USADA and the various reporters, suggesting that there were ulterior motives at play and so on.

Eventually, after testing positive for a second time in 2008 and receiving a second ban, he came clean, testifying before a Federal Grand Jury that was investigating his former teammate, Lance Armstrong in 2010.

For both Tygart and Hamilton, this is a moral question that eschews any and all ambiguous shades of gray. As Hamilton detailed pain that lying caused for him and those around him, he was also just as clear that, even though he was able to rationalize his actions at the time, he did and does feel like a cheater.

It’s relatively easy to heap scorn upon all athletes that use substances, but to listen to Hamilton, he didn’t really have much of an actual choice. He could either take erythropoietin, inject himself with testosterone and have bags of his blood replaced before and during a race or he would not be able to make a living as a professional cyclist.

Which, yes. The pressures upon players are enormous, but the leagues themselves are to a certain degree complicit. Neither Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA or the NHL requires that their employees comply the standards of testing that are set by the US Anti-Doping Agency, let alone the more severe standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency. To date, only baseball tests for Human Growth Hormones, but only after the problem became so rampant that it was impossible to ignore.

It beggars the question, considering the cavalcade of chest-thumping, vitriolic press that baseball has received over the last decade for the Balco and the ongoing Biogenesis scandals, with an entire generation of muscle bound, bacne-ridden sluggers like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro wearing a scarlet PED permanently stitched on the front of their uniforms and suffering a de-facto ban from the Hall of Fame, how fervently the industry (at least in the U.S.) wants to catch transgressors.

As Tygart stated, “Money is being made, home runs are being hit, speeds in the peloton are increasing, and the growth of the sport is happening; they really don’t want to have to police themselves in that sense and bring discipline against a star player.”

Later, in a different panel at Sloan, the new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver outlined why he believes usage isn’t rampant in his particular league:

We may be just that we’re fortunate in the NBA that there is a cultural view that those types of drugs are not helpful for performance…Again, I’ve been in the NBA for 22 years I’ve talked to players all the time. I’ve talked to retired players all the time and I don’t hear about it.”

While Silver did add that the players’ union is receptive to testing for Human Growth Hormone and that it will be a reality in the future, the anecdotal evidence he offered isn’t actual proof. As has been shown in the widespread usage by cyclists, PED’s don’t always creates sculpted, Adonis-like, giant-headed mesomorphs. It can also dramatically increase endurance and reduce recovery time; that’s something that would be quite beneficial to say, an individual that often has to play five basketball games in seven nights.

But Tygart is convinced that the USADA is on the right track, and as more and more players insist upon more stringent forms of testing, they’ll be able to regulate the industry and create a truly clean game.

The problem is, this steely-eyed stance has been the calling card of every agency that has ever tried to enforce drug prohibition laws. Those who seek to profit off of the sale and use of substances (both recreational and performative) have a massive advantage, both in terms of the financial resources that they can deploy in their cause and the speed at which they can adapt and innovate to stay ahead of the testing process.

After the panel had concluded, Mr. Hamilton said, “The teams, the team doctors, we were always two or three steps ahead of the testing. We knew months ahead when a new test was coming, and we always had a new plan. They give you your cheat sheets. And there’s still corruption…Cycling is not 100% clean now. And what happens in cycling, for sure goes on in other sports. My blood-doping doctor, Fuentes, he was involved in other sports and he coached some big name athletes.”

One possible way to defuse the financial incentives and advantages to doping is to legalize it. If athletes are aware of the dangers of PED’s and are willing to do so anyway, shouldn’t that be a risk that they have the right to take?

And considering the damage that playing sports like football, boxing and Mixed Martial Arts (even at the amateur level) does to one’s mind and body, how is this any different? Being a pro athlete is by definition a seriously hazardous job.

Don’t we applaud a player that pushes the limits (or past the limits) of human endurance? We lionize the Red Sox’s Curt Schilling when he pitches in the 2004 World Series with a bloody sock . We applaud New York Knicks captain Willis Reed, taking enough painkillers to fell a thoroughbred just so he could limp around the court on a shredded knee in game seven of the 1970 NBA finals, even if either of these guys (or the countless others) he might be so wracked by arthritis post-career that they can’t pick up their own grandkids (or worse, have taken so many shots to the cranium that they can’t remember their own grandkids)?

Why has the athlete that has destroyed his cardiovascular system by gulping down fistfuls of steroids committed a moral transgression?

By making the choice to consume this product, fans are already complicit. To scream “Fraud” or “Cheater” when this particular line is crossed feels arbitrary at best and hypocritical at worst (and I say that as a devout fan myself). 

Unfortunately, that leaves two equally unwieldy and unpleasant options: Either athletes are forced to undergo an incredibly stringent, rigorous and invasive system of testing—one that could well violate what might be considered acceptable boundaries of individual privacy and civil liberties. Or the barn doors are flung completely open.

Accepting the latter option hat means that the physical marvels and the improbable feats that are seen on the field will not be just a celebration of innate ability—one that has been honed through countless hours of training and an almost unfathomable, borderline fanatical degree of drive and dedication. It will also be something that has been boosted by a chemical cocktail. Granted, that’ may already be the case, as unpleasant a thought as that may be to consider.

But again, that decision ultimately is up to those of us who consider ourselves sports fans. The major professional leagues aren’t going to insist on far more rigorous standards until there is a direct, fairly vocal demand from their customer base and an economic incentive to do so.

And the irony is that Hamilton and Tygart were presenting these difficult moral questions at Sloan. All of the high-powered team executives and rabid admirers were here not because of a pure sense of intellectual curiosity, but because they were all seeking a competitive advantage.

Those who do use PED’s are doing the same thing. They’re looking for a leg up, or partaking of the newest and best innovations in their chosen field. If society decides that that avenue is too dangerous to take, that’s all well and good.

The first step is having an honest, transparent conversation about what is actually occurring, namely that use of these substances is probably fairly rampant, and that those who do so aren’t bad people per se.  Hamilton is the embodiment of that. He wrote his autobiography, The Secret Race, and continues to talk openly about the widespread use doping because the incentives, the pressure, and the larger culture that led him to stick a needle into his arm are rarely a part of the national discussion and he wanted to tell the truth.

And if Hamilton’s going to be that brutally honest, then owners and fans are going to have to be just as honest with themselves about their participation in a drug-filled, win-at-all-costs sporting world.