Is it time to legalize steroids?
It's certainly far too late to ban them
Friday, February 20, 2004
The more I read about the steroid scandal spreading across the nation from the Bay Area company BALCO, the more difficulty I have working up a good fit of outrage. I find myself wondering if the time has come to ask ourselves the radical question -- should we consider making performance- enhancing drugs legal in professional sports?
The facts are these, whether we are ready to acknowledge them or not:
Professional sports have evolved into cutthroat businesses in which performance is the only measure of worth. Athletes have increasingly turned to pharmaceuticals to push their performances to the highest and most rewarded levels. Athletes who abstain from the performance-enhancers risk falling below the ever-higher playing standards and thus risk losing their jobs. Teams and leagues are hardly vigilant about catching users, because the money pours in when paying customers and television executives watch near-mythic characters crush home runs or break downfield tackles.
Here's the final and most relevant fact: The drugs aren't going away, no matter how many rules are posted on locker room bulletin boards. The horse, folks, has left the barn.
"Players are willing to do whatever it takes to give themselves a chance to be competitive,'' said one NFL football coach who works in the Bay Area. "We've sold them the dream (of playing pro football) and then tell them if only they were 20 or 30 pounds heavier, they might make it. So if they're maxed out genetically at 215, they have to find another way to add the weight. ''
As I understand it, performance enhancers are illegal in sports for two primary reasons. One is the safety of the athletes. This is an important concern. Steroid abuse has been linked to all kinds of physical and mental problems, even death. Like most prescription drugs, steroids are dangerous when used improperly. But steroids and human growth hormone themselves are not "bad.'' Doctors prescribe them for any number of medical and cosmetic reasons.
So if you concede that these drugs are here to stay in sports, wouldn't the players be safer if they didn't go to backroom hucksters with no medical background but rather to doctors who can prescribe and supervise usage according to a player's medical history, physical condition and professional goals? This wouldn't guarantee that players would not suffer damage from the steroids. But wouldn't players be safer if a doctor thoroughly explained the pros and cons, the risks and benefits, and let the players make informed choices?
Also, if safety were so much of a concern, wouldn't we stop pumping football players full of cortisone and painkillers on the sidelines so they can play with broken arms and legs? Wouldn't we stop putting guys on football fields at all, for that matter? I'm willing to bet more football players have been irreparably damaged by simply playing the game than have been damaged by using steroids.
The other main reason performance-enhancing drugs are banned has to do with the integrity of the game. I hear this all the time, and I understand the argument. It would not be fair if "juiced'' players broke the records of old- time players who didn't have the benefit of performance-enhancers. We'd have to put asterisks by the records, some say. Perhaps they're right.
But I wonder how we take into account other advancements in equipment, medical know-how, physical conditioning and game strategies that give today's players advantages over their predecessors. Pitching, for instance, has become so specialized that closers rarely pitch more than an inning at a time, allowing them to rack up saves at rates unheard of in previous generations. Should there be asterisks by their records?
One could argue, actually, that making performance-enhancing drugs legal in professional sports would help the integrity of the game because the playing field would be more level. Every athlete would have access to pharmaceuticals. So players would find an edge over their competitors not in a syringe or a pill -- because everyone who wants the syringes and pills could have them -- but in their own talent and hard work.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush devoted several lines to what he perceives as a national crisis. "The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong message -- that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character,'' the president said.
But in today's pro sports, performance is more important than character, and no one in Washington knows that better than Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. He didn't hire players because they spent Thanksgiving dishing up food at a homeless shelter. He hired players because they could deliver and got rid of them when they didn't.
These are the times we live in, whether we want to say it out loud or not. These are times, too, in which consumer-driven prescription drugs are advertised on television for everything we want enhanced, from moods to erections. These are times in which adults can choose to undergo major surgery simply because they want thinner thighs or tighter jowls. Despite the risks of disfigurement and death, we allow them to make the choice.
So I'm wondering why professional athletes shouldn't have the same freedom to make informed choices and take managed risks for the sake of something as substantial as their livelihoods.
Having said all this, I admit to thinking about the future with some dread, knowing that every generation strives to top the one before it: What on earth will the sons and daughters of today's athletes have to do to surpass their superhero parents?