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steroids, and attitudes

Your Humble Blogger has been, for his sins, reading a thread about steroids over at Baseball Primer. There are interesting things about the discussion (along with the usual noise) but it occurred to me that people's attitudes about steroid use in sports can be, perhaps, a window in to more general attitudes.

In the discussion between, say, 'cmr' and 'Steve Treder', I noticed that they did, in fact, agree on much of the universe. They both appear to think that the use of steroids to enhance performance is, on the whole, a Bad Thing, and that any system which is set up to force young men to make a decision between long-term health and short-term success is unfortunate. I don't even think they disagree on whether steroid use (without a doctor's approval, predicated on medical need rather than competitive desire) should be legal. The question is what steps should be taken to decrease the dangerous use of steroids and reduce the health risks. One side is for testing everybody and punishing those who break the ban. A different take is to provide counseling and information for everybody, and use combinations of social pressure, education, and supply-side enforcement.

Is this the argument about steroids or about abortion? I mean, most people think abortion is wrong, but differ about how best to reduce it, and whether (and how) to punish those that resort to it. Many people think the use of marijuana is wrong, but don't want criminal charges brought against recreational users. Prostitution is dangerous, morally and emotionally degrading, and exploitative, and it's illegal in most places, but lots of people want to deal with it in a different manner. People certainly should wear protective gear whilst motorcycling, but that does not mean that everyone agrees that we should enforce laws mandating it.

I think it's a bias, a mood, a mindset. Lots of people are simply reluctant to ban a substance or activity, even if it's bad. Others see the force of law as a useful tool to achieve ends, and are perplexed by reluctance to use that tool. Just something I was reminded of.

Redintegro Iraq,


I'm not sure these are the same thing. The prostitution, drug use, and motorcycle safety examples are all about paternalism: We think it's dumb to do something, but we agree that people should be free to make their own mistakes, and that we shouldn't be paternalistic and make those decisions for them.

Some people may view abortion the same way, but many don't.

Does anyone view the steroids problem the same way? Is steroids use bad because it harms athletes, or because it gives people an unfair advantage?

I suppose there is some paternalism at the heart of it: If we thought steroids were safe and harmless, we wouldn't ban them, just like we don't ban weightlifting or working out at high altitudes or whatever. I'm not sure that's true, though; aren't there drugs on the banned list that don't have harmful side effects, but are banned just based on some principle that using drugs to enhance your performance is flat out wrong?

I don’t know of any safe harmless substances that are banned by baseball, but I’m scarcely an expert. And, of course, I have no idea which substances are truly safe and harmless.
I may be in a minority, and it’s just that the people I chat with are also in that minority. I don’t give a crap if athletes achieve their peak performance ability with the help of good diet, vitamin tablets, or injections, or for that matter if they lie in a duck blind drinking beer all winter. I suppose if there were something that was only available to some (say, some science-fiction plot-substance that only worked on people of Filipino descent), I would consider that cheating, but otherwise, my concern is that the stuff is nasty and dangerous, not that it is “unnatural”. I mean, it’s unnatural to spend hours and hours a day working on leg strength, but I don’t think that Roger Clemens is cheating because he does it (tho’ I have sympathy for his interest in not doing it any more).
Also, by ‘we’ do you mean ‘we libertarians’ or ‘we on this page’? I’m of two minds about paternalistic laws; I am reluctant to criminalize pornography, prostitution or puffing, but I may well accept it if it is too difficult to separate the bad stuff from the more serious crime that it is said to accompany.


By "we", I meant "me and people who agree with me about this issue". :^)

I don't actually know how I feel about the Drugs Are Bad issue, myself. It seems less worthy somehow to get big muscles by taking pills rather than by working out, but that's probably an archaic attitude.

I'm not sure about baseball, but I think other sports (e.g. the IOC) ban things like sudafed, or have tests that can be triggered by things like cold medication. Haven't there been stories about athletes testing positive for things due to the prescription medication they were taking?

Major-League baseball has never banned any performance-enhancing drug: it's unusual among major sports in that respect. For a long time, the attitude was that the matter was irrelevant to baseball because muscle-building was not advantageous for ball-players. Once ways to make bulking up advantageous were figured out, steroids followed weight-training into the game, but it took a long time for The Powers That Be in baseball to recognize that. Of course, amphetemines have a long history in baseball, but they don't need to be banned, I suppose the thinking goes, because they're illegal anyway.

The IOC has, as I understand it, a police that is pretty close to zero-tolerance concerning drugs of any sort. My understanding is that the rationale for this policy is that it's too easy to conceal or to justify, drugs that enhance performance as some other kind of medication, if any kinds of medication are allowed.

I share irilyth's archaic attitudes about the lack of worthiness in "athletic excellence" achieved by the use of performance-enhancing drugs, so I'm willing to see them placed off-limits to professional athletes for that reason. I'm also perfectly happy to see them banned because they're dangerous to the users, and professional athletes shouldn't be put in a position of having to choose between risking their health and losing their competitive edge. I'm also perfectly happy to see them banned on the basis of "slippery-slope" arguments. If we accept performance-enhancing drugs now, how will we make the case when various sorts of cybernetic enhancement devices begin to become available, as they surely will, unless civilization changes course dramatically in the near future.

The "win-at-any" cost mentality is destructive of human beings wherever it takes hold, and professional sports are an important place where such attitudes are fostered and validated, so as a society we might as well take those attitudes on where they flourish in a high-profile fashion.

You wrote:

Lots of people are simply reluctant to ban a substance or activity, even if it's bad. Others see the force of law as a useful tool to achieve ends, and are perplexed by reluctance to use that tool.
I see this analogy. As for the
I may well accept [making something illegal] if it is too difficult to separate the bad stuff from the more serious crime that it is said to accompany,
there's a prime opening for the "slippery slope" argument, as Chris points out. (I personally, find slippery slope arguments to be rather silly. If something is really different, there's no slippery slope. If not really different, then it shouldn't be banned if the similar thing is legal. But then, I think marijuana and tobacco should all have the same legal standing.. but heroin and cocaine and possibly alcohol are in a different category, based on both the body-effects and the potentials for harm to others.)

I tend to agree that pills (or injections or whatever) are less acceptable ... less admirable than "plain hard work". There's a lot of advantages (subtle and otherwise) to some skill or trait developed over time: (self-)discipline, persistance, that kind of thing. It's less effort to remember to take a pill than it is to find time to do the practice and work to build your muscles in more traditional ways.

Well, and my understanding is that the value of steroids is not that they magically create muscle, but that they allow for quicker recovery from workouts, which lets the hard-working athlete work harder than he could without chemical help. The baseball players who have been most often and most publicly accused of steroid use (Bonds, Sosa, Conseco, etc.) have been players also known for spending lots of hours in the weight room. So they have certainly shown persistence and discipline, and the worthiness factor is, well, iffy.

As for the slope that is slippery, well, we allow vitamin tablets, but not steroids, and I don't exactly know what the difference is. Of course, I don't know anything about steroids, and I don't know anything about vitamin pills.

Anyway, I suppose I am wrong on my basic premise, which is the reason why baseball might want to enforce a ban on steroids. I don't see steroid use having any real impact on enjoyment of the game, and so the only reason I might consider a ban is out of concern for the health of the players. It seems that enjoyment of the game is, in fact, affected, which makes the analogy fail.

Feh. Ah, well, I'll be right on something tomorrow.


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