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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?


Have you ever juiced Howard?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/11/2006 10:11 AM  


You raise a very interesting question.

I go back and forth on this issue. The more I think about the use of performance enhancing substances compared to the medical advances today the more your comments make a lot of sense.

One other additional point for now: Barry Bonds has NOT been convicted of anything!!!

Anonymous Richard Mock -- 10/11/2006 10:30 AM  

Interesting question - I think the biggest distinction between using steroids and other forms of performance enhancement to which you refer is their effect on "normal" body function. Nutritional and other modern-day training advancements, while certainly improved from where they were 50 years ago, simply enable to the body to function "better" within a "normal" range of performance opportunity. In other words, the Jeeter of 2006 may be be functioning closer to his athletic potential than the Jeeter of 1946 would have been able because of his exposure to nutritional and other modern training advancements. As for surgery, there's little to suggest that people ever come back "better" from surgery. And even the odds of them coming back from surgery "as good" as they were before are long. I would not classify surgery as performance enhancement. Laser eye surgery corrects an abnormality - the same as other forms of surgery. Maddox didn't get better because of the surgery - he got normal.

Steroids, on the other hand, produce physical and performative effects well outside the "normal" or physiologic range for almost any athlete who takes them. I think the collective opinion of steroid users as cheaters lies in this sense of abnormality - and this creates a divide between the consumer and the athlete. The same divide, by the way, that makes professional wrestling entertainment, and not sport.

Blogger Caseycro -- 10/11/2006 11:16 AM  

Caseycro: well said!!!!

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/11/2006 11:17 AM  

I am a athletic trainer and we have been dealing with this question for a while. Athletes find ways to use the drugs regardless of rules or law, so it is my opinion that professional athletes should sign a risk waivor if they wish to take the drug and let controlled reseach on the affects pertaining to health and performance. So that maybe one day it can be safely implemented into the world of sports.

Anonymous jlock,atc -- 10/11/2006 11:42 AM  

I think steroids and other performance-enhancing substances which thrust human capabilitity far beyond the "normal" body function is considered cheating from a much different perspective: it's not about cheating, but rather it's about money. Think about it...

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/11/2006 2:02 PM  

While Bonds' career is good, even excellent is it better overall than the 7 outfielders included: Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Ted Williams, Cobb, Mantle, and Dimaggio? He might belong with the second teir of Mantle and Dimaggio but I don't think he is/was necessarily better than any of those listed. Homeruns are not everything in baseball. On a side note of the outfielders mentioned only Cobb and Williams didn't win a World Series (This list would include Bonds)

Blogger B.C. Barnes -- 10/11/2006 3:31 PM  

Steroids is illegal in the United States for people who do not need it. That I think should be a good enough reason for it to be banned. AAs I believe CASEYCRO pointed it, there is a fine line between going to normal, and going to supernormal.
Also why does everyone forget that Bonds admitted to using steroids. He just said that "he didn't know what it was".

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/11/2006 3:55 PM  

I tend to disagree with caseycro's description of laser eye surgery as a return to some kind of normal state. The normal state is deterioration, not perfection. I had Lasik, and as a result, I have far superior vision than I ever had. There was no return to "normal." It leapfrogged normal.

But that's just anecdotal. The point is, though, that laser surgery allows people to halt normal -- to halt the deterioration of their faculties that surely plagued other generations. And forget about the past -- Lasik gives batters an advantage over their contemporaries who have not had the surgery. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that better vision would be even more helpful to a batter than bigger muscles.

Also, caseycro's argument seems to suppose that steroids do something that is abnormal. They don't. It is not abnormal to grow muscle. In fact, it is not abnormal to grow lots of it. It's simply rare. While some of us who are not blessed with a particular natural chemical makeup have a tougher time pursuing this "normal" body than do others, the final product of steroid use is no more "abnormal" than the vision of the Lasik patient who was not blessed with genetically superior eyes and now can have them. Caseycro's argument for Lasik can therefore be used to justify steroid use.

Anonymous Collin -- 10/11/2006 4:18 PM  

Why these substances and methods are in prohibited list? You need to ask the question to WADA or other anti-doping structures, which compose the prohibited list. Of course, there are some important reasons for it. May be we even don't know about these reasons. I think that there are 2 aspects of prohibition. Both were discussed above. First, the advantage of one sportsman in comparison with others. Second, using prohibited substances and methods are very harmful to man's health.

Blogger Olga B. -- 10/11/2006 4:30 PM  

One misconception here--baseball had banned steroids in, I believe, 1991 when it adopted a drug policy that proscribed the use of any illegal substances. Steroids have been illegal in the United States since prior to 2002. Although steroids were not named specifically by baseball, the ban by reference would be adequate to label Bonds or anyone else a "cheater" by the letter and spirit of MLB's rules since the early 1990s.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/11/2006 4:32 PM  

In response to Collin:

While your Lasik surgery gave you vision far better than you ever had - it didn't give you super-human vision. It gave you excellent vision - but vision that is within normal limits for humans. Arguably, your vision prior to Lasik was below normal - and so you would have been competitively disadvantaged

Steriods do do something completely abnormal - they allow someone to gain muscle mass, recover from athletic competition, and train, at levels that are completely abnormal. This isn't a "rare" phenomenon - it's a completely unnatural phenomenon. If this weren't true, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Barry Bonds was a work-out freak prior to his alleged steroid use - and yet his physique and performance changed markedly only after steroid use. Consequently, the steriod-induced change he experienced could be characterized as abnormal for his physiology. I'm sorry, but if you believe that the muscle mass found on the typical Mr. Universe contestant is "normal" - you're sadly mistaken.

Blogger Caseycro -- 10/11/2006 5:22 PM  

As for Bonds being left off the team: Home runs are not everything, but he did more than hit home runs. He hit .370 and became, from 2000-04 the most feared hitter of this generation. And before that explosion, he was arguably the best all-around player in the game. He should be in the conversation. My point is that the reason he is out of the conversation was steroids--which leads to the question that entitles the post.

I do not think the line of "normal" is very helpful because "normal" seems undefineable. If normal means what I could have done "normally," on my own (as in 1946) without steroids, why is it not also what I could have done "normally," on my own (as in 1946) without supplements, advanced training methods, and modern knowledge about nutrition? All take me beyond what I otherwise could do. We still need to explain why steroids are different than other things that help me get "better" than I would be without them.

If it is about going from subnormal to normal (as someone suggested as to eye surgery), I believe steroids do that, in part (I am not a doctor or physiologist, but I have read some things). I think they help muscles heal and allow a player who otherwise could not perform well to do so.

As for surgey: Granted, athletes may not come back better from surgery, but they do come back and get to play and, perhaps, continue playing at a high level. To go away from baseball: Carson Palmer's career would have been over 30 years ago--with time, he could be right back on track to a Pro-Bowl career.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/11/2006 8:34 PM  

Collin, I'm sorry. You are simply out of your mind. You must have never used steroids or you must never have known someone to use steroids or even better you must have truly never seen someone that you don't know use steroids. They are ANABOLIC steroids. They not only accelerate muscle growth, they rush the recovery time at inhuman speeds. Forget all your philosophy buddy: you are blabbering on about this and that and have no true knowledge of the effects of these potent drugs. Yes, drugs. They are designed to create abnormal growth whether you opine differently big guy.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/11/2006 9:02 PM  

Anonymous, as a high school and college athlete...yes, I did see plenty of steroid use and abuse. I even reported some of it. And I stand by what I said, because it's not philosophy, "buddy", but the simple truth: that Lasik and steroids do the same thing in different ways.

Caseycro: yes, my vision is not superhuman -- but it's better than 20-20 (well, it was for five years, I think it's slipped since then). But then, the strength of someone on steroids is not superhuman either, not by any reasonable definition of the term. It is at the high end of human ability, sure, but it is still well within the range of human capability. "Normal" does not mean "average." Does steroid use put an already genetically gifted athlete beyond the reach of other mere mortals? Absolutely. It's abnormal in the sense that that specific person would likely not have achieved that same level of muscle mass, but it is not supeprhuman.

The genesis of this argument in the original post was the position that this puts contemporaty players with respect to the old timers. In this respect, Lasik is exactly like steroids. If DiMaggio had Lasik, what would be the record for hitting streaks? Indeed, I'd argue that the only baseball records in danger from steroids are those to do with home runs. RBI records, hitting streak records, batting average, pitching, stolen bases, etc., all of these are subject to numerous other conditions on the field and in the capabilities of the player. Steroids may play a part, but in most of these, the player's eyes play a greater role.

Look, I'm not arguing for steroids. I'm not arguing against them, true, but I'm certainly not arguing for them. They are illegal, as one of the anonymous' pointed out, and have been for a long time. There's lots of non-performance-enhancing drugs that a player can use that'll get him kicked out of the sport. Any sport. What I'm saying is this: to make the argument that steroids in and of themselves make a mockery of the game, you need to do better than "it turns normal people into the unholy spawn of Superman and Spiderman!" Harold is right in that "normal" is a mutable construct, and efforts to situate an argument by using "normal" as a baseline are pretty much doomed.

Anonymous Collin -- 10/12/2006 1:23 PM  

Collin: My whole point is that the results of steroid use ARE NOT "well within the range of human capability", as you argue. If humans were capable of that level of muscle development and recovery without steroids, we wouldn't be having this debate. Barry Bonds on the finest performance-enhancing diet and most scientifically sound workout regime WOULD NEVER develop the muscle mass of Barry Bonds on steroids - never!
It's also why the winners of "natural" body building contests are never as large as the abnormally large winners of standard body building contests.

Furthermore, we know that steroid-induced muscle mass is "abnormal" because of the joint and tendon injury issues that typically develop in steroid abusers because of "abnormal" forces across the soft tissue and joint structures caused by "abnormal" muscle mass and levels of resistance during training - levels they WOULD NEVER be able to handle if they weren't using steroids.

And if you agree that steroid use puts a person "beyond the reach of mere mortals", haven't you made my point?

Blogger Caseycro -- 10/12/2006 2:48 PM  

This being the "Sports Law Blog" I find it interesting that especially in this article, you neglected (willingly) to mention any references to "precedence".

First and foremost, beyond any sport rule book, IT IS AGAINST THE LAW! IT IS NOT LEGAL! (Doctors notes excluded)

The fallback arguement is less about those from the past (as they too could have used them) as much as it's about those who choose to obey the law and play as the spirit of the sport intends, which is, bring all the you (and only yourself has to bring) - I'll bring mine, and the best man will win. When steroids are introduced, the man cheating brings a bench player while the other meets the challenge head on. The terms coward/Peter Pan syndrome come to mind.

As far as eye-surgery's go... it's not any other improvement that the guy already had wearing glasses in the first place. And Greg DID wear glasses but mostly wore contacts. Get the facts straight.

HGH, Andro, etc are in the same bucket.. the "meaningful difference" isn't justified, rather the (knowingly) strong Baseball Players Union was able to keep that off the negotiating table. You should be asking, "why hasn't the union OFFERED these things to the banned substance list?" -- Simple, the union knows that there are too many guys using this right now which would put them out of the game, not by violation, but because those things keep them from the minors.

Back to precedence, the spirit of sport and competition is about fair play (hence rules). Rules are there for those who don't have the integrity within themselves to play for the competition, the betterment, etc. To those who excuse onfield behavior by coining the phrase "If you're not cheating, you're not trying"... you know who you are, you should be ashamed to think you belong being mentioned in the same breath as Montana, Mayes, West, Robinson...

Blogger M Jackson -- 10/12/2006 3:18 PM  

If I argue that steroid use puts one beyond the reach of mere mortals, then no, I have not made your point. As I said, there's a differnece between "normal" and "average." Barry Bonds, Lyle Alzado, Sammy Sosa, etc. were already beyond the reach of mere mortals before they juiced.

And the fact is that humans are capable of the kind of development without steroids -- you just have to be a particularly genetically gifted human. It's not within the range of everyone, but then neither is being able to pick up the spin of a slider and distinguish it from the spin of a fastball.

Anonymous Collin -- 10/12/2006 3:19 PM  

What better point do u you need to make against Colin that presteroids, they werent hitting that amount, and during the steroid period they were. I think that is evident enough taht it was beyond there reasonable ability.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/12/2006 5:14 PM  

M Jackson:

I did not neglect (willingly or otherwise) to mention precedenT. If you look at the original post, my question was "why should they [steroids] be prohibited." In other words, what justified the ban on steroids and what was the basis for making them illegal? The answer to that question cannot be "it's against the law." Rather, the question requires us to figure out why steroids are different than other advancements.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/12/2006 8:15 PM  


I know this doesn't really answer your pilosophical question, but WADA does have an allegedly rational basis for deciding what goes on the prohibited list. A substance (or method) is prohibited if it meets two of the following three criteria:

1) it's performance-enhancing
2) it's bad for your health
3) it's contrary to the "spirit of sport"

I know that's got a few holes in it -- a few more of my thoughts here

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/12/2006 9:56 PM  


Your post of 10/12/06 is right on point.

It is not a question if steriods are legal or not (we know the answer to that) but should they, along with other technological advances, be ruled out of bounds?

I favor as much freedom as possible, without hurting others.

If I may, I believe this is one of your main points in broaching this issue.

I do not mean to put words in your mouth but this discussion is long over due and your post is helping nring this topic to light.

Very "interesting" post!!!

Anonymous Richard Mock -- 10/12/2006 10:10 PM  

The belief by some that MLB banned the use of steroids by MLB players in 1991 is simply false. Both Fay Vincent's 1991 and Bud Selig's 1997 Steroids Policy Letters only applied to personel in baseball not subject to the Collective Bargining Agreement which means that the only players effected where minor league players not yet on their Major League Team's 40 man roster. These policy statements could not and did not have any effect on MLB players because the off field behavior of MLB players can only be regulated thru the CBA.

In addition even the 2002 CBA prior to the 2003 season did not really ban steroid use during the 2003 season but rather just did some annonymous testing to determine if it was a problem that justified banning in 2004 and beyond.

What this all really means is that any MLB player (including Barry Bonds) that may have used steroids prior to and including the 2003 season did not cheat (break any of baseball's rules that applied to them.

In addition, the arguement the steroid use was against US Law even if it wasn't against MLB's rules for MLB's players is also false. Under this arguement it would then have been OK for a player to train and use steroids in the off season in the Dominican Republic where steroid use is still legal but cheating for a player to train and use steroids in the off season in the US. Clearly this arguement is just silly.

Anonymous giantsrainman -- 10/13/2006 1:01 AM  

Why aren't athletes protected by the 4th amendment? Most of them play in stadiums that are owned by the public.

And aren't those that play in Canada protected from unwarranted searches at any level, be it from public or private industries?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/13/2006 12:36 PM  


What examples do you cite that they are not protected?

Anonymous Richard Mock -- 10/13/2006 1:33 PM  

Three things as to the Fourth Amendment:

First, I doubt the concept of state action extends so far that the mere fact the team plays in a publicly owned arena makes it a state actor for purposes of dealing with its employees. While I agree that playing in public ballparks imposes some constitutional limits on teams (see the post and comments on regulating fan speech), I think it is limited to how the team operates the park, not much else.

Second, courts have held that random drug-testing programs do not violate the 4th Amendment under what has come to be called the "special needs" exception. So I doubt the testing program violates the 4th Amendment--at least so long as the ban on steroids for which MLB is testing is a valid one, which was my original question.

Third, and in any event, it really does not matter whether testing would violate the 4th Amendment because the MLBPA agreed to the program, essentially waiving whatever 4th Amendment objection the players might have. But it could be that part of why MLB does nothing without the union's OK is, in part, a 4th Amendment concern.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/14/2006 9:52 AM  

Steroid use is cheating because:

1. It costs money and some athletes cannot afford;

2. States cannot trust each other and the "spirit" of competition is undermined in an arms race, so to speak(USSR, GDR, etc.);

3. Use of steroids has turned some women into men; (oh, if you don't believe me? Go here: (that's from diet and nutrition I'm so sure)

4. Use of steroids sends the wrong "message" to the youth of today ("win at all costs"; "end justifies the means"; "do what you have to do to win");

5. Public's confidence in what is real and what is not is shattered (so, are the races rigged? are the games rigged? who do I bet on?);

6. Government cannot control production, distribution, regulation, and therefore tax!; and finally...

7. The medical profession's proclamation that the latest "disease"....not ADHD.....but IED (Intermittent Explosive Disorder) may be enhanced by the use of steroids therefore the concept of "road rage" might turn into demolition derby on the various American roads leading to serious injury, illness or even death. Therefore, the "cheating" turns into a public health issue.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/14/2006 10:56 AM  


Very interesting post, and something I've been wondering for quite some time. It is an extremely unpopular view, but I have no problem with steroids in sports. I have a lot of reasons for my opinion, one of which you highlight quite well - I don't think there is any rational basis for banning steroids. Distasteful as this opinion surely seems to many, I think the example of professional football is instructive here.

Little fuss was made over Shawn Merriman's steroid suspension, and you'll recall the Carolina Panthers scandal from earlier this season. Why doesn't anyone care? My assumption is that most people (myself included) assume that many, if not most, NFL players are on some form of steroids. I've yet to hear another plauisble explanation for why football steroid use leads to such little outrage. If you look at the NFL, the government paternalism argument regarding the health risks of steroids really breaks down.

That steroids allow you to do things you otherwise could not seems self-evident, but I agree, the same is true of Tommy John surgery - it's well documented that fastball velocity increases after the surgery.

My view is that steroid use bothers people because it threatens one of sports fans most cherished pastimes - debating the relative value of players, using numbers as evidence. But steroids (we think) affects statistics so dramatically that it sucks the fun out of comparison, almost akin to comparing a minor leaguers stats with major league players (clearly no one does that). I doubt most casual fans know how many tackles Merriman has - "he hits opponents hard and frequently" seems to do just fine for analysis.

As frustrating as this may be for sports fans, it doesn't constitute rational basis.

Anonymous Eric M. -- 12/04/2006 4:36 PM  

Steroids are illegal!! As we all know that steroids are performance enhancing drugs used to increase performance in the game which is completely illegal.
It is not fair for people who work hard for their big muscles and who go to the gym everyday, and someone else just inject themselves with a needle or by taking pills.

Anonymous Anabolic Steroids -- 11/25/2014 5:26 AM  

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Anonymous Anabolic Steroids Pills -- 12/14/2014 3:27 AM  

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