It wasn’t until I heard Malcolm Gladwell offer up his idea for remedying the PED (Performance Enhancing Drug) “epidemic” that my feelings on steroid/supplement use by professional athletes came into focus. His solution, to me, is perfect in its simplicity: Legalize them in all professional leagues, with the caveat that any athlete deciding to “dope” is required to disclose it publicly or to their respective governing body, so we all know. Think for a second how effective and exciting that option is.
The problem I have with the coverage and treatment of PED use by players is the inconsistency. While baseball and cycling drop draconian, 50+ game suspensions and/or banishment on athletes found guilty of doping, football turns a blind eye to Ray Lewis’s use of deer antler spray to recover from a torn tricep injury, originally believed to be season-ending, quick enough to win a Super Bowl and retire on top. There’s also Kobe, who hopped across the Atlantic to Germany for an as-of-right-now illegal knee surgery, then showed up for the 2012-13 season playing 10 years younger.
It’s not so much the punishment of PED use itself, because fine, A-Rod and Lance Armstrong cheated, but the distinction between what is acceptable and unacceptable for an athlete that elicits both confusion and exasperation. Outright steroid use is wrong even, as in Armstrong’s case, after recovering from cancer, but having blood and bone marrow manipulated, as was the situation in Kobe’s Regenokine knee operation, is OK? The point is, how do we know the difference between a “performance enhancer” versus a “performance retainer”? What if someone is taking a supplement not to improve, but maintain, and why should athletes be denied something that helps them make a living?
Were PEDs legalized these murky questions would no longer exist. The current cynicism seeping into every athlete’s accomplishment, like Adrian Peterson’s remarkable recovery from a horrific knee injury, would give way to a deeper appreciation and understanding of how such things were achieved.
For detractors of the idea the usual reasons cited all relate to health risks, which is fine, if not naïve, since sports have shown us time and again health will always be an issue, PEDs or no. Joe Theismann broke his leg not because of anabolic steroids, but because he was playing football. Same goes for University of Louisville’s Kevin Ware, who suffered one of the most gruesome injuries ever seen in basketball, if not sports entirely, simply because he tried to block an opponent’s shot. And then there’s this one little word haunting the NFL right now: concussions.
Purists would also argue that PEDs are unfair to a sport’s past, providing today’s athletes a better chance to break records than those before them and in the process distort and warp sports history. Newsflash: It's already too late for that. From improved diets set by team nutritionists to hyperbaric chambers, general advances in science and technology have already elevated the chances of athletes to be more effective than those of the past.
Think if we’d adopted this approach to PEDs in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were treating us to one of the most exciting races baseball had ever seen. The sheer spectacle of seeing those two men compete to break Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in a single season would not have been diminished, but enhanced. What if we’d known both were doping? What if teammates and managers and opposing players knew it? With the knowledge that both McGwire and Sosa used PEDs our determination of their achievements would be equipped with more perspective, our ability to provide context on their numbers versus those of players in the past increased.
Additionally, in the same breath we’d cite those two and their PED-aided quest for history, we could point to Cal Ripken Jr., who retired in 1998 and held the record for consecutive games played without any hint of scientific or medicinal assistance. Knowing beforehand the circumstances surrounding the homerun race and Ripken’s successes would give us a greater (or lesser) appreciation for both.
The argument is currently most relevant in baseball thanks to the Biogenesis scandal, but it’s just as applicable to every other sport. Instead of feigning shock and outrage at another PED “revelation,” the dialogue could evolve into a thoughtful discussion about the place current and future records have in history. Why deny athletes the right to improve their ability to do their job? Why deny fans the opportunity to see people stretch the limits of human potential?
We can wring our hands worrying over the morality of performance-enhancing drugs in sports and wonder if the next great achievement is inherently tainted by covert “cheating,” but it’s a waste of time. It’s happening, it’s pervasive, and instead of pretending we can put an end to it we should embrace the chance to regulate and utilize the gifts modern science has provided. It may sound flippant to say, but I’d rather ESPN be filled with highlights of individuals performing things so impossible I can’t believe I’m of the same species, than watch Day 37 of the A-Rod scandal.