Ask anyone with a decent knowledge of sports and current events, and they will tell you: doping in sport is a problem. Nearly every week, another high-profile doping story makes its way to the headlines of newspapers around the world. A quick Google News search for “doping” revealed over 7,500 results from the past week alone. The stories ranged from the lesser known 2 Youth Olympic Games Wrestlers who were recently suspended to the more famous 2010 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador’s positive test.
Earlier this month, Brent Musburger (an ABC/ESPN sports commentator) told a group of students at University of Montana that steroids work. Musburger blamed “journalism youngsters” who “got too deeply involved in something they didn’t know too much about” for the negative image steroids and doping now have. He went on to say that steroids had no place in high school, but “under the proper care and doctor’s advice, they could be used at the professional level.” (Quotes take from the Missoulian article.)
If you know me (or have been in a class with me), you know how I feel about doping in sports. In fact, anti-doping was one of the reasons I came to law school, and more specifically to Marquette. My view is that doping has no place in sport. The story of how I came to become so staunchly against doping is for another day (and perhaps a different venue), but basically involves my love for the sport of cycling and the systematic doping that plagues that sport. Suffice it to say that I take a firm stance against doping in all sports in all forms.
It probably goes without saying that I could not disagree with Musburger more. Doping, least of all in the form of anabolic steroids, has no place in sports – amateur or professional. I think all anti-doping arguments come down to two basic principles, only one of which Musburger addresses in his blanket approval of steroid use in professional athletes.
First, doping threatens the health of athletes. Musburger argues that with proper medical supervision, steroids can be healthy. While this might be true in some (and I would suggest limited) cases, it would certainly not be true in all cases. The use of steroids can have serious health repercussions, including affected liver, endocrine, and reproductive function, tumors of the liver and kidneys, heart conditions, and psychiatric symptoms. Additionally, the article just linked goes on to mention the increased probability of side effects when 1) steroids are used more than the recommended dose, 2) steroids are used in conjunction with other performance enhancing substances, and 3) counterfeit or tainted steroids are used.
Legalizing steroid use would not solve these problems. The side effects listed in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (a part of the National Institute of Health) article are not restricted to improper use of steroids. I will not detail out the side effects of not only steroids, but also the use of hGH and EPO (often used in cycling), the NCBI does a nice job of listing those and providing citations to studies. Furthermore, the drive to win will always encourage athletes to take “just one more.” Sure, proper medical supervision would ensure that an athlete receives the proper dose from that doctor, but when that athlete fails to win the next race, game, or match, he or she is more likely to increase the dose or combine other methods of doping.
Second, and unaddressed by Musburger, doping affects the integrity of sport. Sport is not about simply winning. The saying “It’s not about whether you win or lose, it’s how you played the game,” although cliché, is absolutely correct. The Olympic Movement identifies the Olympic spirit – mutual understanding, spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play – as fundamental to sport. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was founded on the principle that integrity of sport is fundamental to the spirit of sport, and that integrity is threatened by doping. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) division on anti-doping believes that “doping jeopardizes the moral and ethical basis of sport and the health of those involved in it.” The National Football League itself created its own steroid policy because steroid use threatens “the fairness and integrity of athletic competition” and “sends the wrong message to young people who may be tempted to use them.” Sports are about competition on equal footing, with respect for the opponent, and with respect for the rules of the game.
Permitting the use of steroids under proper medical supervision would threaten the fairness and integrity of the game. First, athletes who choose not to use steroids are at an unfair advantage – most will be unable to compete at the same level as athletes who are using steroids. Second, the integrity of the game is compromised because it is no longer about which athlete has the best skills or talent, it’s instead about which athlete has the best steroid cocktail or the money to buy the best steroids. Thus, steroid use is contrary to the spirit of sport – fairness, respect, and solidarity. The concept of mutual respect between competitors is thwarted when one (or both) athletes would rather use steroids to improve his or her performance than compete based on individual strength, skill, or talent.
However, if health and integrity concerns aren’t enough to convince you, consider this final point. Law students, and indeed lawyers, are fond of the slippery slope argument. I think it finds a comfortable place in this debate. It’s a slippery slope between allowing steroid use with proper medical supervision and eliminating anti-doping regulations. Where is the line to be drawn? Will it now be illegal to use steroids only if taken without proper medical supervision? How can proper medical supervision be proven? How does an athlete prove that the steroids in his or her body were as a result of proper medical supervision and not other means? What about athletes who use more than the recommended dose? What about other forms of doping (hGh or EPO)? Are those next to be permitted under proper medical supervision? It’s difficult to see how regulating the use of steroids in sport is workable.
The only way to preserve integrity in sport and protect the health of athletes is through a serious anti-doping approach. Anti-doping efforts are most successful when the “law” (anti-doping policy) sets forth clear, bright-line rules about when and what substances are prohibited. Although a long way from perfect, WADA has created the most comprehensive anti-doping program in the world (indeed the only anti-doping program most of the world outside of the US models and implements). American professional sports leagues should be looking at ways to model the WADA code in its own anti-doping policies (like the United States Anti-Doping Agency is doing), not seeking ways to excuse steroid use or compromise anti-doping efforts. Steroids have no place in sports.