Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Steroids, Baseball, and Frank Deford 

So, MTH wants a thread on the steroid scandal that's hitting baseball. Here it is. Let me start off by saying that the dumbest commentary on this issue so far as come from Frank Deford, whom I heard on NPR this morning. I don't remember everything he said, but at one point he mentioned that there's no longer a stigma associated with drug use. Now, this is clearly false, or this scandal would not be a "scandal." He said a lot of other idiotic things, but I can't remember some of the others.

But seriously, what to make of this? Giambi, Sheffield, Bonds--all three of them clearly took steroids, right? Well, I'm of the mind that sports should enforce rules against performance-enhancing drugs, but not really worry about performance-reducing drugs, such as cocaine, marijuana, and the like.* This begs the question, which is an important-yet-not-terribly-novel question, "What is a performance-enhancing drug?" Is it something that is under the pharmacological rubric of "steroids." Well, that can't be right, since then I'd be punished for using Flonase this morning, and most athletes would be punished for that cortisone shot they took the other day. Is it something that artificially increases testosterone levels? Well, we had that debate in 1998 over Androstenedione, and, in any event, EPO or ephedrine don't affect testosterone levels.

What about something like creatine, which many of my teammates in college used? That substance (basically) helps hydrate muscle tissue, allowing you to push yourself further before lactic acid builds up to an unbearable level. How about specifically tailored amino-acid chains put in protein shakes?

So, like I said, I'm hardly a genius for asking the question of what, exactly, is an unacceptable performance-enhancing drug, but that doesn't mean it's not an important question.

However, Mark Kleiman points out that we hardly want steroid use to become mandatory for participation in pro, or even college, sports.** This is clearly right. That said, if these substances can be taken safely, and it's not at all clear that they are inherently dangerous, then maybe we should take a "live and let live" attitude and treat these substances like we treat protein supplements, innovative training regimens, and all those other non-controversial things athletes do today that they didn't do in 1960.

But, are they safe? It seems a lot of people say that they can be if cycled correctly under a doctor's supervision (ie, go on-and-off regularly, don't stack, etc). But, what about Giambi, who seemed to get into a lot of trouble, health-wise, after he went off the juice.

In sum, there are not really any clear-cut answers here, except that, once the players and owners come to an agreement, breaking that policy, whatever it is, would be, by definition (or, if you're an NFL ref, by rule--that's for you, MM), cheating, which is morally contemptible in any situation.

Oh, and a footnote: Why is it that commentators seems to say, "look at the NFL--they have strict testing and therefore we don't wonder if Peyton's soon-to-be touchdown record should have an asterisk by it." Is it at all remotely possible that steroid use is anything less than rampant in the NFL, esp w/r/t linemen and other players who need to "bulk" up? I simply can't believe that the NFL testing regimen actually works. But I could be wrong on that.

So, let's see if we can actually have a discussion on this. I threw out more questions than answers here, and I did that for two reasons: (1) hopefully it will foster a discussion, and (2) I don't really have any good answers. Mainly it was 2.

*I realize there are arguments for banning these already-illegal drugs, as well, such as the "role model" position athletes are in and the like. My response to these arguments is "whatever."

**He also points out that the real scandal here may be the leaking of the grand jury transcripts and the undermining of the criminal justice system, which is a very good point--read his take.
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