Steroids, HGH, deer antler spray, blood doping, testosterone… PEDs. To name them all in their various forms would be exhausting (one list here), but they are all labeled as “performance enhancing drugs.” Sports news in just the last few weeks has made it abundantly clear that PEDs are still being used in sports.
Lance Armstrong. Alex Rodriguez. Ray Lewis (allegedly).
These are just a few recent reminders that this issue exists in sports (for those who wanted to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the “steroid era” in sports was a thing of the past).
The media and others love to make these kind of stories headline news and hoist them up as the rare instances of “cheating” in sports. You screwed up, and we caught you! Those caught become pariahs in the sporting world, and who’s going to argue…no one likes a cheater.
But instead of adding to this criticism or further crucifying these “cheaters,” let’s take a look at the context in which they are performing. It’s sometimes easy to forget the bigger picture.
It’s clear that we have a culture that encourages individuals to achieve success as an ultimate goal, in all areas of life (often at any cost). Performance enhancing drug use is not relegated to the sports arena. Consider some of the following examples…
Hollywood is full of Botox-injected and surgically (plastic and cosmetic) constructed stars. Perfectly sculpted bodies that defy the natural aging process don’t come without a little help. It’s abnormal to abstain from these different procedures in that environment. We want stars to look fabulous and young so that we are entertained; we idolize them and put them on a pedestal.
Or what about the many people who use Prozac as a means to “feel better than normal” and be more outgoing and energetic in both work and family lives (see Prozac Nation or Listening to Prozac). Or the college student who pops Adderall to study before a big exam. The financial consultant who can’t get through the day without several cups of coffee and a couple of 5 Hour Energy drinks.
What about individuals who want to improve their sex lives and take Viagra to do so? Or suddenly decide that at age 50 they don’t feel like they did at 25 so they must have “Low T” (a “real” thing now) and need something to improve their sexual libido and performance. Thanks to PEDs, we are not supposed to feel like we are 50 when we are 50…bizarre, no?
Individuals who feel like healthy eating and regular exercise aren’t enough so they use Hydroxycut or Sensa for weight loss. Or they go under the knife and get an abdominoplasty (a tummy tuck). Wrinkles, gross. Hair loss, not a chance. Anything you can imagine can now be “fixed.”
Are these not all examples where we see performance enhancing drugs widely used, and even celebrated? This is rampant throughout all areas of American society; it’s hard to find a place where PEDs aren’t used. Work, family life, appearance, sex, social skills, concentration…we’ve found a way to “enhance” all of them through various methods – many involving drug use or other medical procedures.
Why, then are we surprised to “learn” that certain athletes use PEDs? And why do we act like this is the only place that we see PED use?
For athletes there is arguably much more at stake than many of these other areas – multi-million dollar contracts, fame, and potential legendary status. We incentivize PED use. We expect athletes to consistently perform at superhuman levels. We reward them and praise them when they do.
Even with the aid of various PEDs, it’s not the PED that makes an athlete great. Plenty of individuals who took (and currently take) steroids were unable to hit baseballs the way Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire were able to. Lots of other cyclists using PEDs were unable to match Lance Armstrong’s performance on a bike. Many athletes using various PEDs in all kinds of sports never even make it to the professional level. Talent, skills, dedication, and hard work are still necessary for success.
To denounce those users who are caught and proclaim that steroid use is un-American is hypocrisy. It is entirely American in that we see and encourage it in all aspects of society and life, and it gives us that “edge” towards success that we are always taught to look for. (See here and here as well.)
So do we completely allow and de-regulate any kind of PED use in sports? No, I don’t think so. In an ironic way, these rules protect players from themselves to an extent. Who knows what kinds of wild and dangerous substances players would be willing to try if they were convinced that it would give them the slight edge they were looking for…
But let’s at least get our heads out of the sand and stop pretending that sport exists in a vacuum and is the only place where PED use is an issue. Or perhaps even worse, that this issue no longer even exists in sports. The individuals caught probably aren’t the “rare” exception. We see PED use throughout society. We encourage it, and we incentivize it. Athletes are no exception.