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December 09, 2004

Botox, Drag Racing & Athletic Nobility

In drag racing, you can use regular gasoline, or you can use nitro. You can use normal aspiration or you can supercharge your engine. Each modification has a class and those classed together race together. The sport is all about getting over the finish line the fastest. However, the most popular class of dragsters, top fuel dragsters, are not the fastest. The fastest dragsters are the jet cars. In this model of sport we can find answers to the ethical mind-pretzels now twisting sporstwrigeters all over this country over recent revelations about drug use in pro baseball.

My position is this. Let them take drugs.

There are two primary arguments I hear against the sanction of drug-based performance enhancement in pro sports. Only one of them makes sense to me. That is that the rules say no drugs, so all drug users are cheaters and thereby debase the game. I can live with that. But the prohibition against drugs themselves for the purpose of leaving asterisks off of records is a silly sentiment.

Part of me wants to poo the folks who sweat bullets over the 'messages' sent by drug-taking athletes, because I'm not a part of sports fandom. I have no sports heros, nor do I seek them. I appreciate a good game, just like the next guy, but rarely do I retain enough information from season to season to be a real participant in the meta-game. So I don't care if Kobe is a homewrecker or not. He's a ball player, is he any good? Yeah? Good. Is he better than Jordan? No. OK. End of discussion. That's about as far as it goes with me, unless I'm trying to make an allegorical point about something larger than sports.

But the fact of the matter is that sports heros are real and they do have social weight for many of us. People care about the demeanor of top athletes, they are real role models. So prohibitions against drug-taking by athletes makes sense for more reasons than the integrity of the game. But we should understand that which athletes we choose to idolize is somewhat arbitrary.

There seems to me nothing inherent in the values we seek to revere in sport which limit them to football or baseball. If there is a such thing as athletic nobility, surely it can't be limited to a handful of contests. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, the human drama of athletic competition, certainly all of these are found in sports other than those we dote upon. So it seems to me that some of our ethical dilemma in picking the wrong sports heroes because we are picking the wrong sports. Think about it this way, there was once a time when boxing was considered the domain of athletic nobility. That is no longer the case. Although some would argue that we have lost something permanently as a showcase for heroism, I say it has just moved on to another sport. We are not at a loss for heroes, they just work another arena. Or maybe our society doesn't value courage, strength and speed as much as we thought.

But let's say we allowed drugs in our pro sports. Whatever the values our society places on its mastery I think it is absurd to assume that the critical elements of every sport would become threatened by generally allowing dope. I could be wrong, but I don't believe that we know so much about long distance running as we know about weightlifting. Every highschool kid knows that steroids will grow the kind of muscle mass that makes for a better weightlifter, but what kind of drug makes one a better ski jumper, a better hockey goalie, a better golfer a better video gamer?

So I think that people should admit that it's not the drugs, but the cheating that makes the difference in athletic nobility. If we allowed it, the drug regimen would become just another part of the diet and training discipline athletes use. For those who believe that a drug free purity is necessary, create another class of competition. I happen to think that the Olympic Games best suits the class of competition which should be drug free. After all, many of these are the sports which have little else going for them but the prestige of athletic nobility.

What's interesting about all this is that we already embrace the augmentation of the critical element in the realm of entertainers. Who believes that Hollywood stars are all natural beauties? Living in Los Angeles, I can tell you that the classifieds are full of ads for every kind of physical enhancement imaginable. Dermatologists and cosmetic dentists and surgeons in LA live better than royalty. But is Chris Rock any less funny because he has $40,000 worth of dental work? Is Baywatch any less watchable because some of that stuff ain't real? No. This kind of preparation just comes with the territory, and isn't it fun to see what Whitney Houston looks like without makeup? Sure it is. Just like it's fun for me to know I'm taller than Mike Tyson and Lee Majors.

I know a guy who was the captain of the lacrosse team at Ohio State in the 70s. He said they practiced without pads. There will never be another Jim Thorpe or even Bo Jackson. Time, diet and training regimens move on. Let 'em use drugs. So long as it's not cheating, it raises the bar.

Posted by mbowen at December 9, 2004 10:41 AM

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That's not a bad idea, to put steroid users in their own leagues; one that I pondered briefly in the last month or so but let go in disinterest. They'll keep playing pretend-about-caring until public perception of drugs softens (a good point was made in an article on Yahoo! Sports recently about the possibilty that future generations won't care that Barry Bonds hit 700+ homers on steroids, if that turns out to be the case).

Also, the drug that enhances video game (and foosball) performance is marijuana. It turned me into a home run blasting monster on World Series 2K for the Dreamcast.

Posted by: rockstar at December 9, 2004 10:23 PM

Sorry, gotta disagree. If you examine sports medicine sites (e.g., http://www.sportsci.org/encyc/anabstereff/anabstereff.html), you'll see that steroidal effects can persist far beyond the period of use, and that athletes use several times the medically safe amount to achieve their prowess. When you see a bunch of basketball players charging the stands, are you seeing a natural reaction or a steroidal one? This goes beyond a personal choice to a societal one: will we allow athletes to artificially destroy their health and increase their aggressiveness for our entertainment pleasure and the enrichment of franchise owners?

Posted by: Uncle Smrgol at December 12, 2004 05:56 PM

Absolutely, for what is sports but the ritualization of the aggression of war? There is no other reason for it. I say let athlete steroidify themselves into oblivion, for the franchisees and the fanatics in the stands.

I'm not convinced that athletic sport is a fundamentally civilizing element of human society. Games may be, but not physical sports. Hmm. Let me take that back. Spectator sports are not fundamentally civilizing, they are recreations and diversions.

So yes. I don't care about the life of an athlete when they are off the field. When they are on the field, I want 110%. No matter how morally pure the athlete, nobody will ever care to see somebody break the 4 minute mile. Performance is all that really matters.

Posted by: Cobb at December 12, 2004 06:18 PM