Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Anabolic Steroid Conundrum
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Performance enhancers: bad. Painkillers: good, in the sense that consistent athletic performance is reliant on their availability. Common sense, or meaningless distinction?
Well, it’s hardly common sense. There is a distinction, and it’s not meaningless. The distinction lies within the pattern of use: a “performance enhancer” is generally uses as a substance taken during training to gain an advantage over others using the same training techniques. Anabolic steroids and blood doping fall under this designation. Of course, that doesn’t make either of those things exclusive to the media-perpetrated definition of performance enhancers. Steroids can also be used in perfectly reasonable, and harmless ways. An athlete who has surgery to repair a body part after injury might be prescribed a steroid to help assist the recovery. This is “using”, in the clearest sense of the term, but it’s also not really illegal, nor does it ago against well-established norms in athletics.
The problem that our congress and professional sporting governing bodies have created is that we now have a system where we have a clear line drawn between what is legal use of performance enhancers, and what is considered illegal use: it’s about not testing positive.
That’s where we’re at. Steroid use is okay in your sport, even encouraged, as long as you are not risking a positive test that could cost your organization, or your sponsors, money. In essence, we’ve granted cheaters the opportunity to be clean, as long as they conform to standards, and we’ve risked players who aren’t trying to manipulate the system for their advantage testing positive and then having to stand up, take their public shaming, and move on. That’s the culture that our response to the outbreak of anabolic steroid use has created.
Sure, there are clear, testable short-term health effects of continued use of PED’s. There are also unquantifiable performance advantages to continued use. And major professional sports have a responsibility to make sure that anabolic steroid use not become so rampant that using becomes a prerequisite to making it big enough to get a sufficient salary for the work you do. At the same time, the current attitude to try to outlaw, stop, and de-rail usage is in itself, harmful.
My solution to the anabolic steroid conundrum lies in the middle. College sports programs already attempt to regulate the amount off hours a coach can spend in a week with his team, preparing them for an upcoming game. Do teams break these rules? Of course. The goal is to not prevent the use of methods and techniques that can help win the next contest: you don’t play to lose the game. The goal of anti-steroid laws in baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track, and hockey should work to curb use by setting a defined limit. Should anabolic creams be illegal if they cause a positive test? I don’t see why they would be. That’s part of the competition, treating the athletes so that they can recover more quickly than they would otherwise be able to and get back to competing. What should be disallowed is the illegal training regimen that became so popular in baseball in the late nineties.
Prosecute violations at their heart: suspend the player, the trainer, the coach, and sanction the organization, and people will get the point quickly. But don’t worry about the dreaded “positive test”. The use of anabolic steroids to gain an advantage in sports has never been illegal, nor should it be.
What needs to go punished is when athletes make the sport dangerous. Bigger, stronger, and faster can quickly become too big, too strong, and too fast. Those athletes with a ton of natural talent (testosterone) don’t need to use anabolic steroids to gain an advantage, as they are the standard. Take NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman for example. Merriman tested positive for steroids and missed four games. Is he a cheater? Well, in baseball, he would be considered one. In the NFL, he was reprimanded for his use in violation with a first-time offenders policy. You see, Merriman has since suffered a major knee injury, and has not been the same football player since. He was a user. He was caught. He is not a cheater. Had he continued to push himself past the point where he could contribute to his team, he would have taken himself out of the league.
This happened to former Cardinals receiver David Boston as well. As his BMI shifted to well out-of-proportion levels, Boston lost his functional athleticism. He became a freak. But the league didn’t have any use for him. You see, the NFL has it right. They’ve come under criticism for their looseness on anabolic steroids, but they do it the right way. If getting bigger and bulkier becomes more important than becoming better at your craft, the team will replace you. In the NFL, they have a substance abuse policy, and if you don’t abuse it, you can take any supplement you want. As soon as your desire to lift becomes greater than your desire to play, you get replaced.
Other sports have struggled to solve this conundrum. Baseball seems to just feed the perception of wrongdoing by paying mega-bucks for performance of the top ten percent of baseball players. Of course, we’re dealing with supremely talented players, and they would still be the best of the best even if they weren’t using. What performance enhancers appear to have done in baseball is to prolong the careers of superstars, who battle their age though illegal methods. How awful is this? I don’t think it’s a travesty. The bigger issue is that because these are the examples the players are setting for college and high-school type talent, you get a lot of widespread use at the lower levels of professional baseball, and a lot of the players don’t make it up the ladder even with the assistance of performance enhancing drugs.
There will always be stories written about the 33rd round pick who signs to play rookie ball, and keeps getting passed over because other lower round picks grow their bodies to be bigger, faster, and stronger via illegal means. It’s those players who need to be protected by steroid laws. It’s the undrafted free agents in football, and the bench players in the NBA that need to be protected against other marginal players who keep their jobs through use of PED’s that goes beyond the realm of reason. The idea is not to strive for a purist sport, but to hold teams accountable for doing their own drug testing on players who are trying to get their foot in the door. All the focus on the players like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Shawne Merriman does is distract from the fact that these guys were going to make it anyway, but simply should have been more responsible about how they cut corners in their workout regimen.
That’s my issue with the whole thing. The approach by the active decision-making bodies is wrongheaded, so it shouldn’t surprise that the results are ineffective. A more realistic approach is a prerequisite for achieving positive use in curtailing anabolic steroid abuse.
Use: okay. Abuse: no place in our games.