Monday, 15 July 2013

Baseball, Steroids and Forever.

Funny where a throw-away comment can take you. I was annoyed by the headline in this article that quoted Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig saying "this sport [baseball] is cleaner than it's ever been" in reaction to the ongoing performance enhancement drug issues bedeviling professional and amateur sports.

The use of the word "ever" bothers me, and has for a long time. It probably bothers me more now that I have kids who frequently use "always, never, and forever" when complaining about one thing or another. So my frustration with the word "ever" prompted me to tweet: "Bud Selig insists baseball 'is cleaner than ever' Really? So Babe Ruth, Lou Gherig etc.were all dope fiends?" With this statement I was trying to illustrate the problem when using absolute terms to describe a sport with as long and rich a history as baseball.

I failed.

Mike and I then engaged in a spirited debate in which I tried to regain my footing and state what I actually meant. Some time and reflection later; what I want to say is, the problem with the statement "this sport is cleaner than it's ever been" is that it automatically invites fruitless comparisons with baseball's past. Which is completely irrelevant to the topic at hand, which is the current use (or misuse) of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball. It doesn't matter if Babe Ruth was a juiced up junkie. That was then. This is now. We want to use current science to inform our opinions and we have different fan expectations to live up to. So is Major league Baseball doing everything it can to satisfy today's fan of baseball? To that question, I can only answer "I don't know." All I know is that Bud Selig's statement didn't help make that specific argument. So that's my particular stone thrown from this glass house of poorly worded arguments.

But then I wondered, are performance enhancing drugs really a problem? Should we be outright banning their use in MLB and other sports? Several months ago I read an interesting article in Scientific American where the author was arguing quite convincingly that banning PEDs was logically inconsistent.

If I recall the points he made correctly, they went along the following lines: Many drugs are based on hormones that the human body produces already. Some athletes produce more of these hormones than others and benefit from it. So why can't other athletes supplement their own hormones to achieve the same level of benefit? Why is one athlete allowed to have a chemical advantage over another? Because taking pills is not natural? Well what's natural about spending 12 hours a day exercising in state of the art environments with monitoring physicians and medical devices to gain every advantage possible? What's natural about a specially designed diet to ensure the athlete consumes the appropriate vitamins, minerals and other chemicals to boost their performance? When it comes to being produced by "nature" a hormone in pill form is as natural as a fried omelet for breakfast. Natural, quite frankly, is a useless qualifier to describe what should be allowed and what is not.

What about safety? We don't want athletes damaging their bodies or dying in pursuit of their sport by taking potentially dangerous drugs. Well excess exercise may cause long-term damage and we don't ban exercise. You can overdose and die from too much water, but we don't ban that. So supposing there is a safe dosage for PEDs (and given the number of drugs used daily worldwide for overall health that's extremely likely) they should be allowed like any other drug. If potential misuse is grounds for banning something, then we should just ban all sports period.

So why do we want to ban performance enhancing drugs? If they can be taken safely, why not allow their use? Because it confers an unfair advantage. How? If everyone has access to them, how can it be unfair?

Because they are not a natural way of preparing the body for competition. Here we go again. What is natural about Tommy John surgery? One part of the body is used to replace another part of the body. That ain't natural. Well those are still parts the athlete was born with. OK, so a person is born with a congenital heart defect, and receives a new healthy heart from a donor. Should that person be allowed to compete? If you answered yes, then why is that allowed? How is replacing a defective part you are born with with another part from another human not cheating? If an athlete can receive a newer better heart, why not newer better hormones?

And this leads us to Oscar Pistorius who was allowed (rightly so) to compete in the Olympics on artificial legs. Many argued that his blades were inferior to real human legs and thus did not confer an advantage. Well that's one hell of an arbitrary and subjective distinction. Unless we can perform back to back tests where he runs over and over again with his full legs and then again on his artificial blades, we will never know for sure if they didn't provide him and him alone with an advantage. It is entirely possible he is a better runner on those blades then he would have been on real legs (he may have simply developed a bad knee or ankle if he never lost his lower legs.) And those blades are current technology. Five, ten, fifteen years from now, will we be so certain that artificial legs are not as good as real human legs? It isn't enough to say artificial limbs don't give an athlete an advantage over others, the question is, do they give an athlete an advantage over themselves?

While that possibility does raise the uncomfortable future scenario of an all-cyborg olympics where athletes replace their limbs and other body parts with artificial options, we're not quite there yet. And that is a slightly different conversation than allowing athletes to take PEDs. At least with PEDs all their bodily functions and parts are still "natural". They don't turn anyone into a superhuman, they may take the sub-par athlete and turn them into barely average. The excellent athlete still wins. And if the excellent athlete gets slight better, well then everyone is using the same techniques and no one is cheating. So let the athlete's use PEDs. Let the best juiced up athlete (naturally or otherwise) win!

And all that because Bud Selig used the word "ever".

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