Sports Law Blog
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Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Why is Steroid Use Considered Cheating?
This week Sports Illustrated named its All-Time All-Star Baseball Team. It is based on a poll of 22 baseball experts and features a pretty cool color drawing of the players sitting in the dugout. Notably absent from the team is Barry Bonds; the accompanying story by SI’s Tom Verducci explains that "because of how his freakish late-career production has been linked to the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs," Bonds "has numbers that are not to be believed."
But this raises a question:
Why, exactly, is steroid use considered cheating? Obviously it now is, because the rules of Major League Baseball prohibit it. But we regarded it as cheating even if the steroid use occurred prior to the MLB ban in late 2002 (that is, before steroids were prohibited by rule). And MLB (and other sports) would not have banned steroids (and fans and media members would not have pushed for a ban) if there were not a sense that steroid use was “wrong” and had to be banned.
But why are steroids bad? And. in turn, why should they be prohibited?
The fallback argument is that steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs afford modern players an unfair advantage over the players who came before them, enabling them to break old records and put up gaudy numbers because they have “help” that old-time players never had. In a sport as history- and number-obsessed as baseball, this is a big deal.
The problem with this argument is that there are so many scientific, medical, nutritional, technical, technological, and health advancements that modern players use to their benefit that old-timers never had. We know more about what players should eat; what nutritional supplements they should take; how they should work out; and how they should take care of their bodies both to remain healthy and to recover from injuries. Surely that allows them to play longer and better. Equipment (baseball gloves, football helmets, basketball shoes) is better-made, bringing both safety and performance benefits.
To say nothing of the medical advances that allow players to return from what used to be career-ending injuries. How many pitchers now have “Tommy John” Surgery or surgery to repair the dreaded torn rotator cuff and come back as good or better than before? Compare that with Mark Fidrych, whose promising career was over in three years because of arm problems. And how should we understand the concept of “performance-enhancing” when it comes to science and medicine? Greg Maddux had laser eye surgery that improved his vision, allowing him to see better on the mound (where he did not wear glasses), presumably with performance benefits. How about Ritalin, which basically functions as speed in a person without the chemical imbalance of ADHD; what could that do for a player on a Sunday afternoon during the Dog Days of August?
So why are steroids, human growth hormone, and other substances not regarded as kindred medico-scientific advances that simply help players recover from injury, remain healthy, and play longer and better? Is there any meaningful difference that justifies the differential treatment? To put it in constitutional law terms: What is the rational basis for banning steroids?
One difference might be that the negative long-term health consequences associated with steroids—enlarged head, shrunken testicles, and ‘”roid rage” for starters, plus unknowns down the line (stories of a cancer link abound, although I am not aware of any scientific evidence)—outweigh any benefits for players. The question then becomes why players should not be allowed to balance whether the performance benefits outweigh the health risks and to choose what they believe is best for them. Perhaps many professional athletes are competitive enough to sacrifice long-term health for something that will help them achieve greatness right now. This is a micro-version of the broader societal debate over governmental paternalism.
Is that the explanation? And is that sufficient justification for a ban? Or is something else going on?