Neal Gabler

The real trouble with steroids

By Neal Gabler
August 7, 2011

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IT’S BEEN another boom summer for steroid controversies. First, former professional cyclist and onetime Lance Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton accused Armstrong of having shot himself up with performance-enhancing drugs. Then, last month, former pitcher Roger Clemens went to court for lying about using performance-enhancing drugs and was the beneficiary of a mistrial. Everyone knows by now that steroids unlevel the playing field, that they endanger the integrity of sports, and that they are a high-tech form of cheating.

We’ve been hearing these bromides forever. . . but none of them may be true. There is a problem with performance-enhancing drugs, but it has nothing to do with any unfair competitive advantage for someone like Armstrong.

After all the years of disapprobation, it is hard to tell exactly why steroids, human growth hormones, stimulants, sedatives, diuretics, and masking agents are criminalized when so many other similar athletic aids are considered perfectly acceptable. Athletes have always looked for an edge. Improved nutrition, weight-training, vitamins and other dietary supplements, even aspirin have all been used approvingly by athletes to make themselves bigger, stronger, and faster, to let them play through the pain, to leave them less susceptible to injury, and to let them recover more quickly when they are injured. There is a reason why today’s athletes are, by and large, better than those of the past, and it isn’t genetics. It’s science.

The problem is where to draw the line, and it isn’t as easy as the sports policemen seem to think. How do you parse the difference between forbidden drugs and the acceptable forms of enhancement? The real difference seems to be that performance-enhancing drugs are illegal and other enhancers are not. This tautology makes the doping policemen more responsible for the whole brouhaha than the chemists.

The deeper issue may be nostalgia. We yearn for those simpler times when athletic performance seemed clearer, when athletes seemed to be dependent on their own skills, and when everyone seemed to play by the same rules. In this context, the problem with drugs isn’t that they are a form of cheating, but that they are a form of modernity messing up what we consider a last bastion of individual achievement. We resent them. But that’s a cultural matter, not an athletic one.

So let’s just say it: If Lance Armstrong was using some drug as charged, he wasn’t cheating, in the sense of breaking the basic rules of a bicycle race. Since it now seems that just about everyone in cycling was taking some sort of booster, he was still the best of this drug-enhanced cohort. Similarly, if Barry Bonds was doping, he wasn’t cheating, either. In a league where a whole lot of players were on steroids or HGH, no one else hit 762 home runs. How was the integrity of cycling or of baseball affected any more than it was affected by other, earlier scientific advances?

Still, there is a powerful argument against performance-enhancing drugs: health. It is a scientific fact that many performance-enhancing drugs, certainly anabolic steroids, can do great physical damage to the body and great psychological damage to the mind.

My feeling is that if an athlete wants to court these threats, even potentially deadly ones, that is his decision. But here’s the rub: if a Lance Armstrong or a Barry Bonds decides to use a drug - and we don’t know for certain whether either did - he is also making a decision for each of his competitors. And therein lies the transgression. If they are guilty of taking performance enhancers, they didn’t necessarily cheat, but they did virtually compel everyone else to do the same, which is something that neither had any right to do.

Yet if the health argument is a persuasive reason to discourage performance enhancers, it will not hold true forever. Someday, if saner heads and better science prevail, we may have less-harmful drugs that make athletes so big, so strong, so fast, and so impervious to injury that they may seem like quasi-Supermen. But they won’t necessarily be cheaters, and their drug-taking may be perfectly defensible so long as the drugs they use don’t have the capacity to destroy them.

It may not be neat and it may not play to our own wistful preconceptions about sports. It is probably, however, the brave new world that awaits us.

Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.’’