Sunday, September 02, 2012

Alva Noë - Doping: It's Just Part Of The Game

In his most recent column for NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, philosopher Alva Noë takes a pragmatic view of doping in sports. In his previous column, Making Peace with Our Cyborg Nature, he suggested (to much derision it appears) that performance enhancing drugs are simply another technology in the "extended self" model of human life (i.e., technologies are extensions of mind and body), another tool that extends our abilities and our experiences.

It seems the readers could not grasp that argument - to them, it's just cheating, plain and simple, black and white. So this week, he tries a different approach. Yes, doping is cheating, "but it is cheating that is intelligible and motivated internal to the game, it is cheating that is consistent, in so many ways, with the spirit of self-actualization, creativity, and achievement that is the mark of all sports."

In this argument, doping is cheating in the same way that a base runner takes down the catcher at home base to dislodge the ball, or the same way that a Nascar driver bumps a competitor to get past him (or her), or the same way that a striker goes down as though he was shot with the slightest contact from a defender in a soccer match. These are not the "best moments" of the sport, but they are part of the sport . . . just as PEDs are part of cycling, football, and so many other sports.

I totally agree.

Are performance enhancing drugs just part of the game, proscribed by the rules but understood by all to be a gray area open to interpretation, like a tough call by a referee or umpire?

I would like to begin by thanking readers, so many of whom took the effort to express their outrage at my suggestion, posted here last week, that perhaps the widespread criticism of Lance Armstrong, and other athletes who have been caught doping, is a symptom that we, the public at large, have not come to terms with something basic about ourselves, namely, that we are extended beings whose boundaries depend on the innovative use of technology as much as they depend on anything more intrinsic to our ourselves.

"It's about the cheating, dummy!" I think that fairly sums up what so many of you thought about my proposal. Maybe I had a good thought about technology, the extended mind, and the like. But, many of you believe, this has nothing to do with the matter at hand. The matter at hand is cheating.
Actually, I disagree. The matter at hand is not really cheating. Cheating is simple. Black and white. But there's nothing black and white about the current situation. Drug use in sports is widespread. Outrage against drug use is widespread. What's going on? Why are we so upset? Why are we unable to get athletes to stop doping? And why do we care so much? Why the outrage?

Let's notice, right off the bat, that organized sports have rules, but that not all rules are of the same standing. Some rules are constitutive of the activities they govern. If you take a bus to the finish line, or take short cuts through back yards, you are breaking the rules of road running in such a way that, really, you aren't even competing. At best you are perpetrating a fraud. Putting a piece of metal in your boxing glove, starting running before the pistol fires, using a motor to drive your bicycle through the Alps — theses violations are such as to remove you from any claim even to have participated.

But not all rules are defining in this way. The differences between the rules of NBA basketball and that of international or college play are substantial; but they are different ways of playing the same game, basketball. And baseball has changed many rules over the years — introducing the foul-strike rule, for example — without thereby destroying the game. The game has merely evolved.

Rules governing what athletes may eat, drink, or otherwise consume, and how they may legitimately train for competition, these fall into this second category of non-constitutive rules. You can't compare breaking a rule of this kind with breaking a rule of the first kind. Taking a drug to improve your performance is nothing like slipping a drug into your opponent's breakfast cereal. Eating a banned substance is nothing like using a motor in a bicycle race. It is just sloppy reasoning — equivocating between the different kinds of rules involved — to suggest that it is. Cheating comes in different varieties.

The thing about the first kind of rule, the constitutive ones, is that they define the limits of the game. They let you say this is inside and anything else is outside. Running across the diamond from first to third is excluded in baseball. According to the rules, it falls outside.

But this isn't true of the second kind of rule. The interesting thing about these rules is that they get formulated not at the boundaries of the game, but within it. And they remain, always, within the sport, areas of live concern and contention.

Consider: you can't drug an opponent to win a game. That's excluded by the basic, constitutive rules. But what about throwing the ball at a batter's head, or ramming into a defending catcher so hard that you threaten to hurt him in an effort to get him to drop the ball, as happened (for the umpteenth time) this past week? There are rules against this sort of thing as well. But note, although the rules proscribe these actions, the actions in question are not exactly excluded. The interesting thing here is not merely that players routinely pitch to intimidate, or slide to take out a defender. The interesting thing is that it actually belongs to the culture of the game to dispute whether such play is legitimate or not. The controversy happens not at the limits of the game, but at its heart.

And to test those internal limits, to be willing to give your all even at the risk of injury to yourself and to others, is actually what is required of any player who aims at excellence.

Now my proposal is this: doping is a violation of this latter kind. Doping does not put you outside the game in the way that driving to the finish line of a running race would. Doping is more like the unclean slide or the bean ball. It may be cheating, but it is cheating that is intelligible and motivated internal to the game, it is cheating that is consistent, in so many ways, with the spirit of self-actualization, creativity, and achievement that is the mark of all sports. Any athlete committed to being the best he or she can be, to going to new heights, is going to need to be willing to take risks of this kind.

One benefit of this proposal is that it explains why doping persists despite the efforts to ban it. Asking an athlete not to dope is like asking him to hold back while running the bases. There's good reasons to make that request. And good reasons for it to be disregarded.

I think it also explains why passions run so high. If doping were merely a matter of violating constitutive rules, then we'd simply disqualify the players and get on with it. But doping, like unclean slides in baseball, or roughness in hockey, but also, perhaps, like zone defense in basketball, is a hot topic, a controversial gray area, an area where we have strong feelings and are drawn to take a stand. These are open controversies that belong to the life of the games in question. We debate these questions on the inside.

The important point is this. From the standpoint of the athlete — and as fans we identify with the athlete — doping isn't cheating any more than sliding hard is cheating. Doping doesn't put you outside the game any more than sacrificing your marriage or getting up at 3:30 every morning so that you can get time at the ice rink puts you outside the game. Athletes are in it for the achievement. Athletes will not say No.

And that's why sports matter to us. We are not outsiders looking down on life. We are players. We can never take the rules of life for granted. We are learning them, or figuring them out, or making them up, or, sometimes, trying to change them, as we go along. If sports were merely about the moves that can be made in the space defined by the rules, I don't think we'd find sports that interesting. Sports are about living a life as a player. And players, like the rest of us, test the limits. At least if they are ambitious. They don't say no. And they don't fear going outside normal play. Because they understand — again, this is why sports matter — that, from their point of view, there is no outside.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe


Andy Smith said...

"Eating a banned substance is nothing like using a motor in a bicycle race."

As someone who has followed the Armstrong case closely (for many years), I strongly disagree with this. I don't think Noe appreciate how much doping increases performance in cycling. In fact, "mechanical doping"--putting a tiny motor inside the bike frame--has actually been done, and it doesn't necessarily provide as great an advantage to the rider as a blood transfusion. Gene doping promises to do even more, as (in other sports) does the use of prostheses (Oscar Pistorius is just the beginning).

I understand Noe's argument that doping is an extension of our natural abilities. I'm sympathetic to making it permissible. But one problem is that to compete, all athletes would not only have to dope, but push the envelope, courting serious health risks. In fact, when EPO was introduced into the peloton in the late 80s/early 90s, there were reports of several racers who died from heart attacks caused by the viscous blood. Just last year, Italian rider Ricky Ricco was hospitalized, apparently from a botched blood transfusion, and former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton describes a similar situation in his explosive, about-to-be-released book The Secret Race. One disadvantage of transfusing one’s own blood (autologous transfusion) is that one has to withdraw it first, weakening the athlete for a while, and to avoid this, some riders have transfused someone else’s blood (homologous transfusion), which of course carries serious risks if the type is not compatible. Some have even speculated that Armstrong's cancer could have been caused or aggravated by steroid use. There is accumulating evidence that EPO can increase the risk of a cancer growing and spreading, both by increasing its blood supply and by acting as a growth factor.

In theory, permitting doping would allow us to control it better. But as Noe notes, the whole point of doping is to gain an edge on the competition. If you are just doing what everyone else is doing, there is no edge, unless you happen to be a high responder. Thus athletes feel they must seek out new substances and/or new ways of using substances, and this in turn means undergoing procedures that are not medically evaluated and can be very risky.

Another problem with permitting doping is that it will encourage young people to use drugs not just to enhance athletic perfprmance, but simply to look better. We already have an epidemic of steroid use among adolescent males, often with serious health consequences. This hardly knows an age limit. What do you tell your young children when they want to dope?

The bottom line is that Noe has not provided a new way of dealing with this problem. His basic argument has been advanced before, and while I agree doping is not entirely incompatible with the spirit of sport, it will not satisfy the objections of those concerned about health problems and turning sports into a contest of who has the best pharmacist. Perhaps a better approach would be to get the big money out of sport. While some athletes will dope even if it doesn't make them richer (weight-lifters), a great deal of the incentive to dope would be eliminated if athletes were not idolized.

Andy Smith said...

I should add that Armstrong's case is not simply about doping. It is about a conspiracy, involving Armstrong and five other men--managers and doctors/trainers--who supplied the substances and treatments and pressured other riders to use them. Armstrong's victories resulted not simply from his own doping, but the doping of the teammates in front of him, who were able to set such a fast pace in early stages that most of the competition was eliminated or weakened. Cycling is very much a team sport, and if your teammates are doped better than your rivals's teammates, that increases your edge.

There are also allegations--not yet confirmed but considerably stronger than rumors--that Armstrong had protection from UCI, the cycling body. Thus there are reports that doping testers were called off, or delayed to allow masking procedures. There is also a report of a positive that was dismissed. So this case is not about one kind of cheating, even if we accept Noe's contention that there are two kinds.