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Daring to Ignore the PED Question

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In light of Lance Armstrong’s Oprah interview and a kerfuffle over Ray Lewis and deer antler spray, the topic of performance-enhancing drugs has been in the news with renewed vigor.

It has culminated with this overwrought, hyper-ventilating column by Bill Simmons’ of Grantland, which has instigated my biggest intellectual backlash to the whole purity-in-sports movement to date.

As regular readers of this column know, I adore Simmons and his gargantuan run-on columns and entertaining-as-actual-sports podcast. He is without question the pre-eminent sportswriter of his generation, and he’s managed this by taking an unapologetic “bullshitting with friends” approach to dissecting sports. His writing is normally lucid and terrifically astute, which is why this particular column fails so dramatically. Its tone-deaf, over-the-top, soul-searching shtick would be bad enough, but there is one line that whiffs so badly, it’s unforgiveable. In speaking of who makes it onto his PED profiling list, Simmons writes:

You're on the list because our President claims to be a big sports fan but refuses to get involved, and apparently would rather see every sport go to hell over risking political capital and doing something about it.

The idea that President Obama should drop what he’s doing on immigration, gun violence, education, climate change, unemployment, nuclear proliferation, or any of the dozens of other emergencies, crises, and existential threats to worry about whether Adrian Peterson had chemical help in his comeback season is so totally asinine, it boggles the mind. Mark my words, the one thing that will stop me from supporting the president would be if he pivoted to focusing on PEDs in sports. The humorless self-righteousness with which Simmons wrote that eminently silly line serves as a bit of entry point to the warped worldview of all fans and sports journalists who are obsessed with PEDs.

One of the stupidest moments in our democracy came with the 2005 congressional hearings on steroids in baseball. I watched, baffled, because this was a time when Iraq was collapsing into civil war, American soldiers were coming home in body bags or with the opportunity to test out new artificial limbs—all over a war fought on a total, abject, unequivocal propaganda campaign waged by dangerous, lying ideologues. And there were our representatives grilling Mark McGuire about his home runs.

The idea that we need the federal government to intervene to keep arbitrary organizations of arbitrary games centered around arbitrary rules in order to keep certain arbitrary substances out of those players bodies is possibly the ultimate example of daft prioritizing. Should congress also get involved over the pinch-hitter? The distance of the three-point line? The fair catch rule?

Furthermore, sports purists have never quite explained what the hell the actual problem is, except that PEDs somehow violate their sense of fairness. Simmons comes the closest to articulating why he thinks PEDs are such a huge problem when he writes toward the end of his column, “I don’t even know what I’m watching anymore.”

Well, it’s just all the same stuff, but with guys slightly stronger and faster… Soooo I can totally see how this warrants a collective, society-wide freak-out that involves presidential action. Right. Gotcha. 

As I see it, there are two reasons people tend to express when they get frothy and vehement about PEDs: 1) They ruin the “integrity” of the sport and 2) They are threats to the players’ health. 

Let’s take these one at a time, starting with the “integrity” of a sport. Simmons points to the home run example, where the number of home runs hit in a single season went from Jimmie Fox hitting 58 in 1932 to Roger Maris setting the new record of 61 in ’61—a record that stood for nearly forty years until the steroid era kicked off with the Sosa, McGuire, and Bonds arms race. Surely, this did ruin the purity of the home run record in that Roger Maris can’t get out of his grave, start juicing, and see how he would’ve stacked up, but you know what else Roger Maris never did? He never weight-trained. He never had dieticians working to increase his protein intake. He didn’t have trainers icing and hot-tubbing and massaging every ache and tension in his body all season long. There are all kinds of performance-enhancing amenities modern players enjoy that Maris never did. Plus, Maris got his own form of performance-enhancer when baseball added more games to the schedule, which earned him the infamous asterisk next to his record. Babe Ruth broke his own record when he hit 60 home runs, but by all accounts he played an alarming number of his games hungover and with various venereal diseases, so maybe the itching and the headache were giving him some kind of unfair advantage?

One thinks of the Kurt Vonnegut short story “Harrison Bergeron”: Should we be peering into the chemistry of every single athlete to make sure they’re all working with the same base-level testosterone? As I’ve argued before, are contact lenses performance-enhancing? If a basketball player takes Ginko Biloba to increase his concentration at the free throw line should that count as a banned substance?

The territory gets even murkier when it comes to rehabilitating from injuries. So what if Lewis or Peterson used a substance that helped them heal faster? As Chuck Klosterman pointed out to Simmons in a podcast, you wouldn’t fault them for taking amoxicillin to recover faster from a bacterial infection.

Simmons always brings this valid point up himself but then tosses the implications aside to return to the vapid “integrity” point of view:

What does the word "performance enhancer" really mean? It's OK to borrow a dead person's ligament to regain your 95-mph fastball, but it's not OK to boost your testosterone for those same results? It's OK to travel to Germany to inject stem cells into your damaged knee to stimulate recovery and regeneration, but it's not OK to replace your blood with better blood to increase your stamina?

The bottom line is science will continue to afford athletes the opportunity to improve their performances, and hyper-competitive people making millions of dollars will obviously seek these methods out. Trying to regulate this is not only a fool’s errand but ethically inconsistent (after all; in what other profession is it considered unethical to improve one’s innate, God-given talents with science? When I took mushrooms to write weirder and funnier about a Republican presidential debate was that performance-enhancing?).

Therefore, the more important question is that of player safety. Professional athletes are typically not long-term thinkers, to put it mildly. Let’s say a new miracle drug called Athletidol comes out, and when you pop a couple it gives you more strength, stamina and endurance for a four-hour period. The result, however, is that after taking it a few hundred times your heart blows up. Obviously, there would be great benefit to banning Athletidol and ensure players are not using it. Moreover, it becomes an even more worrisome trend when questionable substances become the norm for college and high school athletes (then again, those cultures need some serious overhaul from top to bottom anyway).

However, there is not a lot of evidence that many PEDs actually cause damage any worse than, say, eating red meat consistently. Even the science surrounding the king boogeyman of PEDs, anabolic steroids, is hardly conclusive about the health ramifications. It may be that some people can take steroids most of their lives without consequence. Then when you get into things like deer antler spray or stem cell injection to hasten recovery times, I’m not sure why all of us aren’t getting deer antler spray and stem cell injections.

The player health argument ultimately becomes total crap anyway because the most popular sport in America is premised on activities that cause long-term brain damage in players, so who gives a shit what PEDs are doing to them? Oh, the linebackers are stronger and faster so they’re inflicting 2% more concussions than before in a sport based around inflicting perpetual physical harm? Um, yeah—clean up football!

None of this is to say I’m adamantly against blood or urine tests or whatever other draconian measures a particular league wants to enforce. That’s up to the people involved in that sport. But could we at least stop pretending that the PED question is this over-arching existential threat to society? Can we at least tone down the umbrage and acknowledge that the purists, like Fox News white people, are pursuing a nostalgic ideal that never actually existed?

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