Thursday, September 05, 2013

Chuck Klosterman - There Are No Sound Moral Arguments Against Performance-Enhancing Drugs

In the New York Times recently, in the Ethicist column, Chuck Klosterman responded to a reader's question on the hypocrisy of making PEDs illegal while other forms of performance enhancement are not illegal. Klosterman argues that there is no sound moral argument against PED use, but he does offer an ethical argument.

He believes that morality is a personal choice, but that ethics are a contextual and socially constructed set of rules. Therefore, a sport (like a religion or a board game) can have a set of rules upon which most people have agreed. However, he also acknowledges that the lines drawn in sports are  capricious - why is a shot of Toradol okay for an injured player but not a shot of testosterone, when both offer healing benefits?

I reject the ethical argument as well - and below this article I offer a brief outline of my own views on PEDS. For another excellent argument relative to the hypocrisy of making these substances illegal, see this column by Miami Herald reporter Dan La Batard.

There Are No Sound Moral Arguments Against Performance-Enhancing Drugs

Published: August 30, 2013

Q: The argument against performance-enhancing drugs in sports is that the drugs give players an unfair advantage. But how do P.E.D.’s differ from Tommy John surgery? Or pre-emptive Tommy John surgery? What about rich kids? Is their access to superior coaching, facilities and equipment a similarly unfair advantage? In a society that embraces plastic surgery, Botox injections, Viagra and all kinds of enhancements, what moral line do P.E.D.’s cross? 

The hypocrisy you recognize is undeniable. Virtually all moral arguments against P.E.D.’s involve contradictions. The presumption of competitive unfairness could be applied to any two human experiences that aren’t identical. The notion that P.E.D.’s are “unnatural” isn’t that distant from making the same argument against elbow surgery or insulin or eyeglasses. Any impulse to criminalize steroids in the name of player safety is absurd (collision sports are more dangerous than the illegal drugs used within them). Some will insist that athletes have a unique responsibility as role models, but that claim evaporates the moment you question the assumptions therein. (Why are people who happen to run fast and jump high the best models for behavior? Can someone be forced to be a role model against his or her will?) There are no sound moral arguments against P.E.D.’s.

There is, however, an ethical argument.

Morality is about personal behavior. Ethics are more contextual. They create the framework for how a culture operates. Sports, unlike life, need inflexibly defined rules. Any game (whether it’s the World Cup or Clue) is a type of unreality in which we create and accept whatever the rules happen to be. Even the Super Bowl is fundamentally an exhibition. So how do we make an unreal exhibition meaningful? By standardizing and enforcing its laws, including the ones that don’t necessarily make sense. Three strikes constitute an out; four balls constitute a walk. In order for baseball to have structural integrity, we all have to agree that this is the system we’re using. Success or failure at baseball is measured against a player’s ability to perform within the framework that defines what baseball is; the logic behind that framework is almost a secondary concern.

For a variety of reasons — statistical tradition, illegality, fear — there’s a social consensus that P.E.D.’s are bad for sports. The lines have been drawn capriciously, but the lines exist. Though it’s difficult to explain why, we’ve collectively agreed it’s O.K. for an injured football player to take a shot of Toradol to help ignore an injury, but not a shot of testosterone to help that injury heal faster. Now, you can certainly argue there’s no moral justification for that dissonance. But morality is not the motive here. The motive is to create a world — or at least the illusion of a world — where everyone is playing the same game in the same way. P.E.D.’s are forbidden because that’s what our fabricated rules currently dictate. In real life, that’s a terrible, tautological argument. But in sports, arbitrary rules are necessary. The rules are absolutely everything, so the rules are enough.

E-mail queries to, or send them to the Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018, and include a daytime phone number. 
Okay, here are my views on PEDs, which I have posted in various forms over the years (this is a slight revision of the comments I left at on the PED in sports topic).
All performance enhancing drugs should be legalized for use under a doctor's supervision - for athletes, for you, for me. Athletes whose income (in the tens of millions of dollars) depends on producing statistics and being able to play as many games as possible (performance incentives) are going to do whatever it takes to stay on the field or in the game/race. The real benefit of HGH and testosterone (and all of their derivatives, as well as other drugs), are that they speed recovery from injury or simply from the wear and tear of the game (soccer, rugby, football).

The bottom line with PEDs is that they are simply another form of technology - like top of the line basketball shoes, the insanely lightweight bikes used at the Tour de France, the knee braces worn by NFL linemen, or the high-tension tennis racquets used on the pro tours. The list could go on and on.

In the 1940s and 1950s, just as an example, NFL players only had food as a "sports supplement," or maybe some dessicated liver pills (which you can still get, incidentally). Now all athletes have access to whey protein (quicker recovery and better immune health), creatine (strength and muscular endurance), a variety of amino acid supplements (l-tyrosine for alertness, l-leucine for muscle building, BCAAs for recovery), nutrient repartitioning supplements (ursolic acid, CLA), and even basic post-workout supplements specifically designed to aid recovery (containing a 2:1 carb to protein ratio with hydrolyzed whey, extra l-leucine, and other insulin potentiating substances). PEDs are in this same category, only more effective when used correctly.

Which is why they should require a doctor's supervision. With testosterone one needs to avoid the conversion into estrogen (so we also need an aromatase inhibitor), the increase in LDL cholesterol (so we need fish oil and other healthy lipids), or, with oral steroids, liver damage (so we need alpha lipoic acid, curcumin, and/or milk thistle extract).

PEDs can be used safely and effectively, but that will not happen as long as they are banned and/or illegal.
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