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To dope, or not to dope?

in Opinions/Sports by

To dope, or not to dope; that is the question. In the professional sports world, the controversy of whether or not steroids and performance enhancing drugs should be permitted has always been a hot-button issue, recently coming back into public discourse after the news hit that Russia and some Russian athletes were banned from the current 2018 Winter Olympics for doping. Many people oppose the idea of allowing them, saying that it gives certain players an unfair advantage in the game. As a result there is no shortage of anti-juicing policies. However, if we really want to address the issue of illegal steroid use in professional sports, I propose that it’s time to head in the opposite direction: legalizing performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).

One of the biggest arguments opposing the allowance of steroids in professional sports is that people who use PEDs are endangering their health, a complaint that deserves attention and concern. But the reality is that nearly all anabolic steroids have the potential to be safe — a premise that the American Physiological Society supports in their publishing of articles on the matter in the “Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism.”  This assumes they are not obtained from the black market, which is where they must be purchased if they continue to be prohibited to athletes. If steroid use for professional athletes is permitted, they will be able to legally obtain physical enhancement drugs which have been regulated, and are therefore possibly safe to use.

Illegal steroids have the risk of having been tampered with, which could be extremely harmful to the user, and if they’re not used appropriately, the results could be devastating. Therefore, legalizing their use will possibly eliminate many of the dangers of PEDs and thus nullify that argument for their illegal status.

An important distinction to make as well when discussing the health effects of anabolic steroid is that between use and abuse. The majority of cases of adverse side effects from these steroids in athletes are in the demographic of professional bodybuilders, and as Jay Hoffman and Nicholas Ratamess argue in their paper on the exaggerated medical issues with anabolic steroids published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, “[r]ecent research has indicated that those athletes exhibit behavior that are consistent with substance dependence disorder.” This ties into the issue of black market and self-administration  of drugs, as opposed to legal consumption, in that unsafe, unregulated use of steroids is more conducive to overuse and abuse than medically administered treatments. Painkillers or similar drugs when regulated and distributed by medical professionals are safe, when they are sold on the black market or abused through self-administration, they are not. Steroids have the potential to be this way as well.

Most of the potential health concerns of steroid use are cardiovascular (myocardial infarction), hepatic (increase in tumors in the liver due to the development of these steroids from testosterone), or behavioral (“‘roid rage”). In each of these areas, what Hoffman and Ratamess point out in “Medical Issues Associated with Anabolic Steroid Use: Are They Exaggerated?” is that the majority of the case studies into these side effects fail to show uniform presentation of side-effects across the subjects, but instead are shown in various and sparse individual cases where causation is not necessarily drawn. Of course, the stories of dangerous and harmful side-effects related to steroid use are honest recounts of real experiences. However they should not be taken as evidence for the need to totally condemn and prohibit steroids. It is completely understandable that an under-researched and under-supported drug, which might offer some explanation into the stories of side-effects in its self-administering users, but this is not necessarily cause to completely throw out all potential PEDs in the name of health concerns.

Now, let’s not forget that the purpose of professional sports is entertainment, witnessing the seemingly magical feats of human athleticism and physical ability. An increase in steroid use would only serve to increase the talent and intensity of the game and bring it to a higher level. Increasing the performance ability of the players makes the game more interesting and appealing. For instance, take the late 1990s. After the 1994 strike, fans had become less and less interested in the game of baseball until Slammin’ Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, two of the most successful hitters in baseball history, raced and chased after the thirty-seven-year-old Roger Maris home run record, which McGwire finally broke. From a business and popularity standpoint, baseball hadn’t seen a better time for a long while. Both Sosa and McGwire were illegally using performance enhancers at this time (one of the reasons for their fantastic seasons).

The undeniable truth is that professional athletes always have doped and will continue to do so in the future. “Performance enhancement isn’t against the spirit of sport. It’s been part of sport through its whole history,” says Oxford practical ethics professor Julian Savulescu. The MLB has had players take amphetamines in the 1960s, and many of those players are in the Hall of Fame. One of the greatest athletes of our lifetime, Lance Armstrong, was recently stripped of seven Tour de France titles when he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. But the use of performance enhancing strategies in professional cycling is as old as the sport itself; Armstrong was certainly not the only contestant who was “juicing.” However, he was the only one who won the race. He deserves to be recognized for that accomplishment — regardless of the widespread denial of steroid use in the sport.

Permitting safe steroids and performance enhancing drugs will also relieve the complications that are brought on by restricting their use. For example, the current bans don’t make sense; the MLB has strict limits on ephedrine and methamphetamine, as well as the human growth hormone — which is reputably effective in injury recovery – but no restrictions on creatine intake, a supplement that spurs muscle growth.  

“Most of the research on HGH has been done on the elderly, not elite athletes, but studies have shown that while the drug might grow the size of a muscle, it is not associated with a spike in strength,” Tom Farrey explains in an ESPN article about the potential healing properties of HGH. Abdul-Karim Al-Jabbar shared his experience with using HGH to help recover from a knee injury.

“The bottom line is we get beat the hell up, we need whatever’s available to keep ourselves out there,” said Al-Jabbar on the the recovery properties of HGH.

The word “steroid” has a negative connotation, because it is thought to be an unnatural and unfair way for athletes to up their game, but what is the difference between increasing skill through novel training techniques and through performance enhancers? Is it that PEDs are an outside source of help, not relying solely on the athlete? Because use of specialty trainers, exercise equipment, and nutrition plans also help increase a player’s talent through outside help. If steroids and PEDs are restricted, should we also regulate an athlete’s protein intake? Steroids are synthetic, but so is a specially designed golf club, and the way a tennis racquet is woven, and for that matter, so is protein powder.   

I don’t aim to justify the actions of Armstrong, Colon, and Cabrera; they knew the rules and voluntarily violated them. I do aim to rid us of the little league-esque romanticizing of professional sports and the athletes for whom they are a livelihood. The essence of sports is that winning touchdown, that sprinting finish, and that fence-clearing homerun. Steroid legalization for professional athletes won’t jeopardize that; it will only enhance it.

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