My Brain on Drugs

I refused to comment on the Floyd Landis issue over the past two weeks because I didn't know exactly how to put my thoughts on the matter into a concise wording. I didn't want to just ramble on about my beliefs that he's innocent and I didn't want to just say it shouldn't matter. But I think I stumbled on a way to explain it the other night while sitting around the campfire at Mount St. Helens.

I just don't care if athletes use steroids, HGH, blood-doping, or anything else illegal and synthetic. I just don't care. Legalize it all and then, for once and for all, we can again have a level playing field. Now, I know you're probably getting ready to fire me off an angry email about the athlete's health and the "sanctity of the sport" so just here me out.

Let's be honest here folks, do you think it's healthy for a running back in the NFL to get hit thousands of times in the knees and back and head? He will. Do you think it's healthy for a catcher's knees in the MLB to spend that much time squatting down like he does? Try it and tell me how long you last. Or what about boxing? Nothing needs to be said there. Or what about the tremendous risk of ankle and knee injuries to the men and women in the NBA and WNBA. Or, to go in a different direction, look at professional ultra-marathoners and adventure racers. Do you really think it benefits your body to run 100 miles nonstop? Or to go four days without sleep? And these sports aren't the only ones. There's a reason why we have ailments called "jumper's knee" and "tennis elbow", not to mention certain surgeries named after professional athletes. Tommy John anyone?

When it comes to sports at the professional level, the demands and rigors of the activity alone are so potentially crippling long-term, that I'm not sure the side-effects of steroids and other banned substances are really worth all the hubbub they receive. But I think, if society is really unwilling to accept "drugs" as part of our sporting culture, then there's a way to let it work itself out.

Remember how horrified and shocked the nation was when Magic Johnson announced that he had HIV? Up until that point it was a well known fact that pro athletes -- especially a couple famous guys in the NBA -- were basically on a nationwide sex tour for half the year. For example, most everyone who follows sports knows of Wilt Chamberlain's claim to have had sex with over 20,000 women. There was a culture of promiscuity throughout the 70's and 80's not wholly unlike the one we believe to revolve around steroids in the 90's and 00's. But what about the sex? Once Magic announced that he had HIV, a murmur fell across the athletic populace and people began to realize the err of their ways. I'm not naive enough (or depressed, depending on how you want to think about it) to think that athletes don't get a little action on the side when they travel, but there is definitely a much lower tolerance for it nowadays. Instead of hearing stories about Magic Johnson (best name ever) having women hand-picked from the crowd and brought to his hotel room after the game, you instead see guys embracing a much more family-oriented role. And, as for the single guys, they still get their kicks no doubt, but undoubtedly with protection in most cases.

What happened with sex and Magic Johnson could happen with steroids if we let it run its course. Everyone in the 70's and 80's knew the dangers of unprotected sex and promiscuity, but it took one of their biggest stars to suffer for athletes to take notice. They have to see it hurt one of their own to take it personally and realize their mortality.

So, as for use of performance-enhancing drugs, I say let it run its course. Let anyone and everyone use it. We'll get somewhat of a level playing field; we won't have to obsess over B Samples, polygraph tests and subpoenas; and we can once again focus our enjoyment on the sport. Then, say, in 15 to 20 years from now when guys start dying or kids start being born with mutated genitalia, then finally a big enough star in sports will be able to take the microphone just like Magic Johnson and shock a whole new generation into giving up something they became accustomed to. And while it's true that some guys with moderate notoriety have suffered from steroids and, ultmately died (Lyle Alzedo comes to mind) it's not recent enough and shocking enough to matter, sad to say. Only when the supposed side-effects claim the life or offspring of someone who the public adores and who other players revere will there be a real push to end the use of these substances. The push to change what many believe to be a culture of drugs in sports has to come from within. For that to happen, a star has to fall.

And if that never happens? So be it. Enjoy your homeruns. Enjoy your world records. Enjoy it all. We in the public and those in the media like to call an athlete's body a temple, but it's really just a piece of the machinery that any corporation relies on. And like any company, an athlete (the Board) has to decide where to draw the line when it comes to taking on risk for increased profits. It's clear that where we are in sports today, the money is defintely there and, well, the risks and side-effects aren't much more than hearsay. Every company has to take risks to achieve their goals. Why treat athletes any differently?


Criscipline said...

I completely agree with you but I think you may have missed something. Legal or not, there is still a large population of pro athletes who still wouldn't use steroids. You mentioned leveling the playing field. The field would never be level and there would be tremendous disadvantage between users and non users. What then? Handicaps and head starts? Some people will still think it's just plain wrong legal or not.

Doug Walsh said...

That assumes that there are significant results to be had from steroids and HGH. I don't doubt that steroids can build strength and reduce recovery time -- that's all very well documented -- but I'm not convinced that it necessarily translates to being able to hit a curveball or being able to make a diving catch. Some of the best athletes in the MLB, for example, are most certainly 99.9999999% clean -- guys like Ichiro, Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer are proof that you don't have to be on the steroids to be awesome. Just like I believe that Lance wasn't on anything when he won his 7 TDF's. Yet all of them compete against guys who are cheating.

Just look at the bulk of the guys busted in the MLB since the new steroid policy -- almost all of them have been pitchers. Yet guys like Ichiro and Mauer and Jeter still average .350 (as a whole). And guys like Pujols (who was probaby 120 pounds at birth) still hit colossal home runs off them. And there is no reason to believe any of these guys are dirty.

The recovery aspect is real, and in cycling that's huge. I won't argue that. But as for the impact on most actual sports/games? I think it's just as much placebo-effect as anything else.

Criscipline said...

Good point.

Maarten said...

Alright... s'going to be a long comment, since I disagree with a lot of your premises and conclusions.

First of all, I feel that if you legalize doping, you won't be watching a competition between athletes. Instead, it'll be a competition between doctors. I don't care to watch an exciting stage and hear the commentary "well, Paul, Landis is riding strong here, which shows the superiority of Dr. Ferrari's blood doping approach."

Now, you can argue that we're already watching an arms race between doctors and testers, and that the guys with the best-paid, sneakiest doctors are getting away with the most. That's a given either way. But with doping illegal, and strong testing, at least the high risk associated with getting caught will produce pressure to stay clean, especially for the top racers who get tested more often.

Further, cycling is a low impact sport compared to most other. The training and racing regimen is brutal, but I'm not convinced that it leaves athletes with severely damaged bodies the way boxing necessarily does.

Next, I don't buy the Magic Johnson/HIV analogy. If current doping methods are found to be harmful and dangerous to the body (oh wait, they already were! excess doses of speed, anyone? EPO leading to thickened blood, killing cyclists in their sleep?), they'll simply move along to other methods. It's not an either/or situation.

It's totally unclear how many cyclists are currently clean. If you read memoirs ("Rough Ride"), former pros report that doping was widespread in the 80s. Racing speeds have gone up since then, and there are still voices saying "everyone is doing it" and "you have to take something to keep up these days".

Finally, what fun is there in a Stage 17 exploit if it's not the grit and willpower that's pushing Floyd, but you know it just means that he took more pills than the other guys?

My current theory: Floyd got drunk on scotch, and doesn't remember being given the testosterone.