The arguments on both sides have been well-documented (very well done here), but I was particularly drawn to one recent piece on NPR, in large part because it does a great job of summarizing my own feelings about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in sports.
"Katherine from Larkspur, Calif." called into NPR's Talk of the Nation nearly three years ago. It was a few days after [Olympic track star Marion] Jones made her public admission [regarding PED use], and the topic for discussion was why athletes dope, and why they think they can get away with it.
The caller said that was missing the point.
"There is an untold story," she said, "about all the thousands ... who make a conscious decision, that are really great athletes doing the right thing, working really hard — and they just drop out because they're just not willing to do the things to your body and to go down that road."
In other words, athletes who don't just say no to drugs, but no to sport — athletes, it turns out, like that caller: Katherine Hamilton.Ultimately, this is the insidious problem with steroids. It's not about the health risks, or that it encourages high school athletes to use similar PEDs--at least not directly. The problem is that where there are great rewards--and the rewards, both financial and otherwise, for athletic prowess have never been greater--there will always be those who attempt to cheat the system. If we allow those cheaters to prosper, then the viability of the entire enterprise is compromised. The more great athletes who quit out of despair, the closer sports in general come to being simply irrelevant. Nobody cares about sports that they consider (or fear) to be rigged, except as a side show--like professional wrestling or heavyweight boxing.
We simply cannot allow the greatest rewards to be accessible only to those who are willing to make the most questionable decisions. Therein lies the similarity between Roger Clemens and Bernie Madoff (or any number of other white-collar criminals). Both existed in arenas where great rewards were to be had, and both (allegedly, for now) cheated to rise to the top.
Being the great believer in meritocracy that I am, nothing offends me more than to see a supremely talented athlete--like the woman profiled in NPR--abandon her dreams because she sees no choice in a rigged game. A society that rewards (or at least, does not punish) the taking of shortcuts to their accomplishments will eventually find itself with no incentive to work hard or do things "the right way".
Clearly, our society is one that is rife with inconsistencies. We vilify those who use PEDs in sports, but we cannot watch a single sporting event on television without being bombarded with advertisements for antidepressants, male enhancement drugs, or cholesterol-lowering medicines. In many ways we have become a "quick-fix" society, but we shun these behaviors at the highest levels, or when they begin to offend our collective morals.
Eventually, we will need to address these inconsistencies, and find a way to return to being a society defined by true hard workers. Until then, focusing on figures like Clemens and Madoff--men who chase the highest rewards that our society can provide--will have to suffice. Hopefully, this is one area where "trickle-down" economics will indeed pay dividends.
[National Public Radio]