Posted by Brad @ 5:18 pm on June 18th 2012

I Don’t Care About…Steroids

I’ve stated this explicitly a few times before, so may as well make it an official entry into my I Don’t Care About list. I’ll dust off an old comment to do so.

Roger Clemens was just found not guilty in his perjury trial. Barry Bonds hits the Hall of Fame ballot this year. Mark McGuire is the hitting coach for the Cardinals and mentoring young hitters. Ryan Braun, the reigning NL MVL tested positive (waaaay positive) immediately following his MVP award, which was later overturned on a technicality which, while perfectly fair, didn’t really speak to the question of guilt. Hell, even getting out of baseball, Lance Armstrong continues to be overtaken by allegations, and the year’s most celebrated horse, I’ll Have Another, was trained in a shop notorious for doping and which may well have contributed to him not having a shot at the Triple Crown.

All this lead to ESPN magazine rightly asking the question “do we even give a sh*t anymore?” (paraphrased).

My answer: No. I really don’t.

My basic stance here is that there is no practical solution, and that the lines we try to draw are little more than polite fictions.

Using baseball as the example, would I prefer that all players be natural athletes? Sure. But there’s no way to accomplish that in any meaningful way, and it comes down to an arbitrary philosophical question rather than a moral one.

I think it’s important for people to understand that “performance enhancing drugs” isn’t a light switch – which is to say it isn’t really on or off, a binary yes-no kind of thing.

Rather, it’s a spectrum – a color wheel sort of thing, with an arbitrary, often-moving line where, on one side, we call it “dark” and on the other side “light”.

What non-athletes I think don’t get is that pretty much EVERY professional athlete is taking a TON of performance-enhancing substances, for everything from injury recovery/prevention injections to just routine conditioning supplements. Go into any GNC store in the world and start reading ingredients and you’ll see what I mean. Ask any professional or even semi-professional athlete what they ingest besides food and booze on a daily basis, and you’ll often get a list a mile long – checking ingredients would be like reading a shampoo bottle.

Most of that stuff we call legal, and some of it we call illegal, and some of the stuff legal today is illegal tomorrow, and some of the stuff that’s legal tomorrow will essentially do the same thing as the illegal stuff of today. There’s about a million ways, for instance, to bump your testosterone levels (as per Braun). Some are legal, some aren’t, and some guys have levels that baseline at a level that would be illegal for other guys. But the line is entirely arbitrary, and the basic idea – that there are some guys that succeed based on natural ability and talent, and then the f’ing cheaters – is entirely false.

And, frankly, the other thing I think people understand is that illegal PEDs aren’t some kind of magic bullet that causes a .230/13/42 guy to go to a .313/54/138 guy in six months. You could dope me up with all the PEDs that I could tolerate without dying and it’s not like I’d become a major league all-star (or even minor league journeyman). It really only makes a difference in shades. All the major leaguers are taking stuff, and they’re all, for the most part, all taking the same stuff. And some of them are taking more of it, or certain varieties that cross the line by being slightly more illegal than the stuff that’s legal. But almost without exception, the difference is in degree, not kind. A tomato can is a tomato can, and a guy that can blast is a guy that can blast.

The premise – that we can (or do) separate the natural from the enhanced is entirely nonsense in every real-world way. It becomes instead “purity theater” with no meaningful impact on the game save causing a lot of headaches and distractions. I’d rather instead a system in which players are given regularly health checkups (physicals and blood work with a higher bar) to make sure all they stuff they’re taking isn’t killing them, and then sending them on their merry way.

Again, I get integrity of the game arguments, and entirely sympathize. But in the history of sporting contests, there have been things that athletes do to themselves that a “natural” person doesn’t that gives them an edge, be it mechanical, chemical, whatever. That is, in fact, in large measure what makes them athletes. As long as there is a material advantage to being better at something physical than your peers, people will find ways to tweak their physicality to give them an edge. And the ultimate irony is, the more you try to regulate it, the more you basically ensure an imbalance. When nobody or everybody is taking steroids, it comes down to skill, heart, intelligence, and training. When SOME people are taking steroids, it comes down to who is the best at not getting caught. And when you stop sweating it, you let medical science continue to tweak athlete’s bodies while, on par, the kinds of qualities that we admire in athletes still wind up coming out on top (there is a reason, for instance, why in MMA the really ripped body builder types tend to get pummeled by the wiry guys or dudes with beer guts, or why Triple H couldn’t play first base).

I’m pretty okay with the status quo in baseball, truth be told – it’s a level of purity theater I can basically live with – but you’re not ever going to see me get worked up about it (and, when prosecutors or government officials (hello McCain) start getting involved, I get downright annoyed).

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