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December 16, 2007


Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards,

The scandal raised by former Senator George Mitchell's report on steroid and other drug use in professional baseball raises an interesting question: why exactly are sports fans upset by performance enhancing drugs?

Granted, our society honors professional athletes and is worried about illegal drugs, so it's possible that this is ultimately an anxiety about making drug use seem glamorous or simply profitable. But I don’t think that any amount of recreational drug use by athletes would generate this level of social disapproval.

After all, it is certainly possible to view steroids or epogen or human growth hormone as chemical training aids, like lifting weights or running sprints. Use of performance-enhancing drugs has associated dangers, but you could say that's an issue for the athlete to ponder. Are their benefits (fame, fortune, records, sexual opportunities) attractive enough to counterbalance their risks? We allow athletes to make their own choices about the possible dangers to their person and lifespan from bulking up to play football, for example. Likewise, we allow pitchers to risk permanent injury to their shoulders, elbows and wrists from hurling baseballs at more than ordinary human speeds. Why aren't we willing to let them make up their own minds about performance-enhancing drugs?

You could also make the argument that because such drugs are either stigmatized or illegal, the people who do use them are getting an unfair advantage over those who are more law abiding. Of course, this could be resolved by making them legal and de-stigmatizing them. I don't think people want to do that; most fans seem to want to eliminate them altogether. Why is this?

Not to dismiss the force of these other arguments, but the best answer I've been able to come up with is an evo-bio one. To wit, that most people unconsciously view sports as a display of reproductive fitness, not merely one more entertainment option among many. And those people don’t want their athletic displays of reproductive fitness being fiddled with by chemical means.

If you make this assumption, it sorts out what is really different about performance-enhancing drugs from other training aids. It’s okay to allow athletes to train for competition, because the discipline and capacity for hard work are also sexually desirable, inheritable traits. It’s okay to build up your body with weights, because the ability to maximize your muscularity is again an inheritable trait. And being crafty about your training regimen is a tribute to the athlete’s intelligence, another capacity transmittable to one's offspring.

Steroids, on the other hand, are clearly not inheritable and thus 'cheating'. A less reproductively fit athlete, one likely to produce less capable offspring but who is taking steroids can appear better than a more reproductively fit athlete who isn’t juicing.

Granted, if you would allow all the athletes to juice, presumably the most genetically gifted would still shine through relative to the other elite athletes. But in that situation you would trample on yet another emotion inseparable from the notion of sports as a display of reproductive fitness. That is, you take away the sense that these people are just like you and me, only with a better collection of genes -- faster, stronger, stronger, taller, more disciplined, more ambitious and probably smarter. I think people want to feel that elite athletes are being rewarded with money and fame (and sexual opportunities) because they really are the right-hand distribution of the bell curve to which we all belong. In other words, better than us, but still of us, like us, plucked out of the same pool by superior attributes. Not robots manufactured in a lab somewhere, impossible to imagine as possible sexual partners or top-of-the-food-chain role models.

In short, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.



posted by Friedrich at December 16, 2007


When Mark McGwire was breaking the one season homer record (he ended with 70, which I think has already been beaten) I kept thinking, this ain't right. He looked like a baloon man. Maybe that relates to your theory, or maybe not. All I know is he didn't look right. And that was my sole reason for feeling uneasy about his achievement: revulsion at his overblowness.

Posted by: ricpic on December 16, 2007 9:18 AM

I also wondered why all the fuss. Why not just allow players to take any kind of poison they want if they think it will help?

Baseball periodically struggles through some type of scandal. Few people seem to remember the great cocaine scandal of the 80s. I talked about it in this post. The cocaine scandal seems not to be mentioned because it is thought to just be about partying, but I think that cocaine use was also about performance. Since I've seen so much cocaine use in the music biz, I know that people coke themselves up to deal with stage fright. Once coked up, people are raving, lunatic aggressors.

I think that "The Natural" says just about everything that can be said about the mythical status of baseball. Baseball is supposed to be an expression of the purity of nature. Fathers pass on to their sons the belief that the universe of baseball is a particularly pristine world of justice and natural beauty. Of course, Malamud's novel was decidedly grumpy and bleak, as opposed to the cheerful movie where good inevitably triumphs.

The future doesn't look good for absolute purity. Genetically modified athletes are just around the corner.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 16, 2007 10:07 AM

I think your hunch is a good one, that somehow we feel like juiced athletes are no longer like us. I feel that way about much pro sports these days. It's like a freak show, or a videogame -- hyper-pumped, loony, and generally nothing I want anything to do with. Why I feel this way I'm a little unsure of, to be honest. Intellectually I'm all for more liberal drug laws, and I guess it's dimly interesting how far people using drugs can push their performances. On the other hand, once that kind of techno-drug hysteria takes over, I lose interest. If I'm in a mood to watch some sports, I'd rather watch something that recognizable human beings are involved in. Tennis hasn't become a sport of balloon people. And minor-league sports still feel human.

It's another interesting question. If the major sports were just allowed to let rip where hormones and such are concerned, what would happen to their ratings? I mean, I think we have a kind of unconscious assumption that we watch sports partly to witness what "the best" are capable of. But what happens if (what with hormones and drugs) our interest in "the best" wanes? And many people turn to watching slightly less-"best" games and athletes instead? That'd be fun. Assert our humanity in the face of the 'droids!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 16, 2007 10:17 AM

A point to ponder is that some of the steroid users identified in the Mitchell report, especially Bonds and Clemens, most likely used steroids primarily to extend their playing careers. That's not quite the same thing as trying for an unfair advantage over other players.

Posted by: Peter on December 16, 2007 10:17 AM

For true baseball fans, hitting and pitching records are sanctum. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single season home record, he used the same kind of balls, the same kind of bats, hit in the same stadiums as Ruth did - a pseudo level historical playing field was present. Of course people can and do argue # games per season v. juiced balls v. night games, but for the most part, the historical consistency was there.

So when McGwire sets the home run record in '98, he basically goes and takes a big p*ss on 80 or so years of record keeping in the modern era of baseball. Which destroys what most people found most appealing about the sport in the first place.

Posted by: James on December 16, 2007 10:24 AM

Fans of team sports can’t seem to help viewing players as being their warriors, doing battle with the enemy for them, for the people. Hence the consistent (mis)description of athletes as ‘heroes’. In myth, heroes of this kind are often strangers or not-entirely-human beings, who come to the people in their hour of crisis. They are ‘heaven-sent’, and indeed are often born of gods, or emerge from the earth or sea, or fall from the sky. These heroes are the product of greater-than-human forces, and their arrival is the sign that the people still have the sanction of those forces (heaven, God, the gods, nature). The hero’s victory over the enemy legitimizes the people he is fighting for as something more than a mere assemblage, a heap of bodies that just happen to be located close to one another.

But what if the hero isn’t from heaven after all? What if his heroic attributes are the product of human design? Then heaven’s sanction has not been gained, and the hero is just something manufactured, simply a warped human, not god-like or heaven-sent at all. No greater-than-human forces have brought him forth, and no sanction of the invisible has been gained. The people are just that, a bunch of people, and their ersatz ‘hero’ is just another addition to the heap (and a warped and freakish-looking one at that).

Fans don’t seem to care about steroid use in sports that lack this heroic aspect, this sense of competing (fighting) for something bigger than medals, money or fame. It’s when they get all tribal that these back-of-the-brain-generated taboos come flopping forth. Which links back, it seems to me, to evo-bio.

Posted by: PatrickH on December 16, 2007 11:31 AM

As long as it's not allowed, it's cheating. And allowing it means that we the fans are explicitly paying people to do things which are extremely unhealthy and risky. This is of course the case in some sports (football, boxing) even without the drugs, but we don't want to feel responsible when some beautiful elite athlete in the prime of her life dies of a heart attack.

If the drugs were safe, I'd support them. If testing were good and the drugs were not safe, I'd support banning them. With bad testing and unsafe drugs, I don't think there really is a good answer. That's just part of life.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on December 16, 2007 11:58 AM

I'm not a baseball fan, but I've always thought the crux of the problem with some players using steroids is that it puts pressure on other players to do the same thing. Ultimately a person making the decision to pursue professional sports as a career would have to accept the risks associated with performance enhancing drugs, because there'd be no (or very little) possibility that anyone who wasn't an enhancer would be able to compete. To me, that's a big shift from what a person would have to do otherwise in an attempt to become a professional athlete.

Posted by: i, squub on December 16, 2007 12:09 PM

Steroids also pose risk to innocent bystanders in the way it can escalate the kind of mental emotional chaos that leads to violent outbursts and lashing out. Do we want athletes on roid rage beating fans, family, peers, officials randomly at the drop of a hat.

Posted by: TW on December 16, 2007 4:37 PM

Here are my guesses. As I understand it, there are basically two problems:

1) Banned performance enhancing drugs: These are banned because in the long run, unlike vitamins,etc., they are dangerous (i.e., have bad long term side effects). NOT banning them would allow people who didn't care about their long term health to dominate a sport and thereby pressure more "sensible" atheletes to either ruin their health or not compete. One of the social purposes of sports is to serve as a living laboratory for better health practices (e.g., foods, medical procedures, equipment, etc.). Allowing these dangerous drugs negates this benefit.

2) Blood dopping (sp?). I don't know if it is dangerous or not, but even if it isn't, it changes focus of a sport. Rather than becoming a test of skills, techniques, training and stamina, etc., or best health techniques (e.g., nutrition, exercise) it becomes a narrow, alienating test of who has developed the best blood dopping technology.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 16, 2007 4:55 PM

TW -
There's some controversy whether 'roid rage actually exists. While steroid users indeed do appear to be especially prone to violent behavior, it could be because violence-prone people are more likely to use steroids in the first place.

Posted by: Peter on December 16, 2007 6:56 PM

Cheating in sports is the same as cheating at cards. Not everybody does it, even if many do it. It doesn't just give a boost to competitive longevity, it also enhances performance, which is why steroids are now banned.

A big deal about baseball is the historical aspect--of comparing players of one era to another. This can't be done if palyers are juicing now. It ruins the nostalgic aspect of baseball. Just like steroids gives these athletes a leg up on their present-day competitors, it also gives them a big leg up on players of the past who didn't use them.

I think there is something really odd about watching juiced up players playing ball. Its like watching a 100 meter race where the racers keep edging up further and further past the starting line until the starting pistol goes off. I don't watch sports much because of this.

A lot of adult sports fans don't care about steroids because they think it just enhances performance, and as long as the game is more exciting, so what?

But if players will cheat, so will owners and refs--or are people too dumb to figure that out? I wonder how many sports fans will go to games if they think they are "juiced" like the players? How fun will it be to root for "your" team if you think the games are fixed? And please don't tell me about how gambling isn't pervasive in sports--gambling money in sports is HUGE! Personally I think many games are fixed. Of course, you can't make it too obvious. Anybody who abides corruption in sports, and think it only goes as far as athletes using drugs to enhance their performance and give the fans a "better" game is delusional. There's a lot going on you don't see. I wonder if the gambling aspect has the sports leagues recruiting and abiding athletes with criminal and organized crime backgrounds.

I'd bet you anything it does!

Posted by: BIOH on December 16, 2007 7:35 PM

I understood FvB question to be: why are fans upset by players using steroids? None of the reasons given above (danger, roid rage--oh come on!) really get to that, since they focus on the authorities' reasons for banning the drugs, not the fans' reasons for abhorring them.

The authorities ban steroids because they know that they're bad PR. In other words, the fans don't like them. So we're back to square one: why do the fans so dislike them? We're looking at irrational taboos here, not based on attitudes even remotely reasonable or scientific. I mean, how many fans can even name a steroid? Can the commenters above name a single steroid? Probably not, since they appear to have gotten their information from the media, especially its least credible journalist rabble--sports "reporters". The media simply reflect the same irrational, myth-driven, oogah-boogah tribal collective "wisdom" of the beer-sodden, hot-dog-bloated, face-painted, lipidous mass of losers called sports fans: you know, the ones a football coach(!) once called "the oafs in the stands, the nothingmen filling their bellies".

Why would anyone think there's anything rational about a fan's reaction to anything, including anything as complicated as those long organic molecular compounds called steroids? As if!

Posted by: PatrickH on December 16, 2007 7:50 PM

Use of performance-enhancing drugs has.. dangers, but you could say that's an issue for the athlete to ponder. Are their benefits... enough to counterbalance their risks? We allow athletes to make their own choices about [other] possible dangers to their person and lifespan...

This issue was addressed by SF authors Larry Niven and Steven Barnes in Achilles' Choice. The gods offered Achilles a choice: a long, happy, obscure life - or a short and glorious life. Should athletes be allowed the same choice? What if they were?

I would say no... I never like any social mechanism that rewards self-destructive behavior, especially to the point of making it competitive.

TW: "Roid rage" is almost entirely a myth. There is very little documented evidence that steroids turn the user into a violent bully. Such behavior is observed, but remember that most of these men were big, muscular, and aggressive beforehand.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 16, 2007 9:12 PM

It's a whole lot simpler than all this. Sports is supposed to be a pure meritocracy, where all the extraneous hoohah is supposed to be set aside for a pure contest of skills and willpower.

Posted by: Foobarista on December 16, 2007 11:15 PM

I like this post, and it makes some intuitive sense. But I wonder if the commenters above who point to the unique elements of baseball (the tradition, the statistics obsession, the weirdly literary "innocence" mystique) might not be on to something too. It seems pretty damn obvious to me that NFL players juice up, but the public doesn't seem to mind as much. People watch football to see speed, aggression, hyper-athleticism, and bonecrunching violence. It's gladiatorial and about thrills. There I don't think people mind as much if players have some artificial aids to get faster, bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than they naturally are.

Of course, another problem about steroids is that they can force everyone competing in the sport, even at lower levels, to take dangerous drugs if they want to compete. A lot of people have kids who play lower-level sports, say at the high school level.

A related question: would a pro baseball player have been irresponsible and immoral if he did NOT take steroids during the height of the Steroid Era? After all, this guy is being paid millions to be a successful competitor and perform at the maximum possible level for the fans. Everybody around him is taking roids, so he's at a competitive disadvantage if he doesn't. By taking drugs, he can recover faster from an injury and deliver more wins, thrills, and entertainment to the fans who pay his salary. Isn't he something of a hero for sacrificing his health for the fans? That's what we normally say about players who play injured, etc.

Posted by: mq on December 17, 2007 1:38 AM

If steriods were legal, then they would become the barrier of entry for any professional sport. If you want to play bad enough, you'll have to take them in order to compete at a high enough level. Which then begs the question, wouldn't the outcome of the race be the same whether or not the runners had a 25 mile-an-hour wind at their back? In other words, if everyone took them, the competitive advantage would be negated and the outcome of any event would be the same as if no one took them. And this provides the answer to FvB's question. Fans object because, with only certain players taking them, the playing field is not level.

Posted by: ron on December 17, 2007 2:02 PM

JA-you're obviously a casual sports fan. To believe that the NFL is in any way clean beggars the imagination! For your own edification, google studies of the long-term effects of steroid use and report back what you find.

'Roid rage is a function of people with psychological issues (I'm too small and weak!) using hormones to become something more in line with their fantasies (Now I'm big, strong and fearsome, you pencil neck! Get the f%@k out of my way before I crush you!).

As a season ticket holder of the Boston Red Sox, I stand behind the comment I made a couple years ago when the Commish decided to go after amphetemines-If I'm going to pay about $500 to go to a game with the family, I don't care that they played a night game yesterday in Oakland and caught the redeye. I want them bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and if that means popping a few of the necessary tablets, so be it!

When the WWE wrestlers die early or kill their families, the MSM immediately start with the steroid stories, totally ignoring the toxicology reports after the fact. Most of the have a mixture of illicit drugs in their systems that would make the ghost of Elvis blush! It's not the steroid abuse that leads to aggressive behaviors, it's the aggressive people that pop the 'roids (as well as other chemicals)! The MSM drives the pompous attitues on steroids; the say -it-ain't-so stance that they print or broadcast is at total odds with what they KNOW is true. Everyone in Boston was made aware of Clemens' excessive workout routines from his rookie year by the local media. When he went from stud to dud (three very mediocre years) at the end of his tenure there, no one blinked when the Sox GM said he wouldn't give him the huge contract because he was "in the twilight of a great career". When Clemens proceeded to be EVEN BETTER in Toronto and later New York (as well as a bit more muscular), there wasn't a peep from these same media people about his unnatural comeback. Who are they kidding?

Peter-Clemens career should have been over about 5-7 years ago. Due to the PED's, he collected about $75 million beyond what was his real due, as well as taking the roster spot of some young phenom. Is this right?

Michael-no, tennis is not the sport of balloon people. It's the sport of athletes throwing matches and others being poisoned!

I'll leave you with this; I used to be a shot putter in school, so I follow the event during the track & field season and in the Olympics. In the Sydney Olympics, all 8 throwers in the shot put final had been banned at some point in the previous 5 years for PEDs. I guess they were all clean by Sydney (where Marion Jones' husband was supposed to be one of the throwers but was busted by the dope cops).

Posted by: Brutus on December 17, 2007 2:27 PM

The science is still researching the connection between body chemistry and mental states.
However using drugs is a cheat because you didn't have to work for it. With training and all that jazz you at least earn the results by working your ass off and suffering along the way, no pain no gain no guts no glory. With the drugs you buy a dose shoot up then go.
Then there is the attitude mind set that goes with using drugs many on the outside see it as taking the easy way out.
And I love this bit:
"How many of these guys wear crucifixes on their gold chains, make the sign of the cross when they come up to the plate, or point heavenward after they make a good pitch to get out of a jam?

What, exactly, are they praying for? That Jesus help them remember to pack their syringes before road trips?"
From here:

Posted by: TW on December 17, 2007 5:27 PM

Ha. Any high level athlete works his ass off, whether he uses drugs or not. In fact, a big reason to take drugs is that they help you train (aka work) harder than you otherwise could by making your body handle stress better.

Posted by: mq on December 17, 2007 6:38 PM

Steroids do not just 'let you shoot up and go'. The effect of steroids is that they permit more intense exercise, especially resistance training, and more rapid recovery, from that exercise or from injury. Steroids without much harder training are a waste of time and money, and a needless risk to your health.

And the appeal of steroids to athletes in a sport with a ridiculously long season like baseball should be obvious. I don't have any stats to back me up, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of the improvement in the performance of baseball steroid users is in sustained high performance over a season, fewer slumps, rather than some freakish superhuman performance level per se.

Posted by: PatrickH on December 18, 2007 8:56 AM

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