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Analyzing the Ethics of Steroid Use in Professional Sports

Performance Enhancement

According to cable network ESPN, the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports, “there should not be a controversy over anabolic steroid use in athletics – non-medical use of anabolic steroids is illegal and banned by most, if not all, major sports organizations” (1). Sometimes, a simple statement can express more than the sum of its actual words. In the case of steroids, this phenomenon applies to the word itself. ESPN defines steroids as “the synthetic derivatives of the naturally occurring male anabolic hormone testosterone” (1). The significant questions regarding steroid usage in professional sports come pre-packaged in two main sections: medical and ethical.

The idea of enhancing one’s physique through steroids is not a new idea. In 1959, a doctor introduced weightlifter Bill March to a new piece of workout equipment, along with a small bag of experimental pills. Thinking it was just another type of vitamin, March did not think much taking the pills. (3) Some sixty years later, steroid use has run rampant throughout the sports world, no longer commandeered exclusively in weightlifting circles. Allegations continue to echo through all professional sports, with Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL) at the forefront.

With staggering results, steroid use can have a great effect in little time. Bill March, the guinea pig for the drug back in 1959, experienced this first-hand. “A four-sport athlete, he stood 5-foot-9 and weighed 156 pounds when he graduated from Dallastown (York County) High School in 1958” (3). A year later, March weighed in at staggering 198 pounds. “It works,” March said flatly.

Questioning how effective steroids can be is not the correct route to take when discussing medical or ethical problems with the drug. Some people believe that steroids are a great tool for life, if used carefully. Among these people is Dr. Alan Mintz. “It gives you the power to have a healthy life in your later years,” he explains. “There’s a tremendous benefit if you go about it the right way. It’s very exciting medicine” (8). Medically speaking, Mintz may sound like an irresponsible physician. But it must be maintained that he does not condone steroid use in young people. He is “totally against the use of steroids to boost athletic performance. A 25-year-old athlete has no need for them. The price is too high” (8).

Mintz also agrees that the body is a complex system of hormones that change significantly throughout life, especially in the later years. The use of steroids in a safe fashion can have magnificent results if monitored carefully, according to Mintz. The body’s production of sex hormones starts declining around the age of 40, which wasn’t much of a concern 100 years ago when life expectancy was about 45. Now that life expectancy is in the 70s, replacing the hormones no longer made naturally can improve the quality of life in later years” (8). While not exactly the fountain of youth, steroids can be of great help to someone beyond the hormonal declining stage in terms of quality of life. “Hormones are like members of a symphony orchestra. You need all the instruments to play Beethoven’s Ninth,” Mintz said. Under strict medical supervision, study after study has shown that steroids taken in low doses do not cause health problems. Nothing is going to make you live longer, but age management can help you live better” (8).

Age management seems to be a fairly generous term to use in regard to the medical uses of steroids. This becomes alarmingly evident when an estimated one million people in the alone uses steroids for athletic enhancement, according to The Medical Journal of Australia (7). Age management, as pleasant as it sounds, is simply not an effective phrase to use when describing steroid usage. Furthermore, “the media’s focus on high-profile athletes who test positive for a banned substance overshadows the pattern of use: most non-therapeutic drug use is at the non-competitive, non-elite level of sport where there is no drug testing. Particularly troubling is the use of steroids on and by adolescents and the known connection between some of the drugs and myocardial infraction, stroke and psychiatric episodes in apparently healthy athletes” (7). Without question, steroid use in professional sports sends shockwaves through the entire country athletically. In a society where professional athletes are revered for their achievements, it is only a matter of time before young people will try to imitate their heroes by using some type of steroid. If Barry Bonds can win a mantle overflowing with Most Valuable Player awards by allegedly using steroids, why should a high school kid feel any different about doing the same thing to get ready for his own baseball season. “Many of the people using such drugs are average guys at the corner gym who want to look macho. It is unclear how many professional athletes actually use steroids, and the usage varies from sport to sport” (9). Therein lies the societal conflict.

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So why use steroids? “They make you bigger, faster, and stronger. And they work perfectly well in anybody who’s training heavily” (2). Professional athletes already train very heavily, so most users probably view steroids as an acceptable means to achieve their goals in their sport. Fighting to achieve a goal is a great attitude to have, but not when steroids become involved. For instance, take the testimony of Michael Dillingham into account. As physician for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and at Santa ClaraUniversity, he brings much experience to the table for this topic. “Because steroids enable heavy lifting, tendon tears and osteoarthritis are common ailments. I could tell you about guys who do what their bodies weren’t designed to do-such as benching 400 pounds-and by the time they are 35, they cannot lift their arms” (2). Short-term goals obviously have been reached because of steroids. However, the long-term problems are worth taking into consideration before deciding to use such a drug.

A lingering question remains: If steroids are so bad, why does the professional sports world still have to deal with the problems that it causes? According to national newspaper USA Today, “players stand to make millions if steroids improve their stats. Owners will make more money if attendance and TV revenue rise in response to a home run splurge or an improved team record” (10). The ethics of steroid use in professional sports now comes into play. Is it ethically acceptable for a team owner to turn the other cheek about steroid usage if a particular player is producing huge statistics and showing some of the typical signs? Is it ethically acceptable to the respective sports leagues to allow owners to have this option in the first place? Is it ethically acceptable for a player to take a performance-enhancing drug in terms of the morality of the game?

Former Anaheim Angels infielder Benji Gil sees the medical reasons as being enough to dissuade him from taking steroids. “The doctors told me it’s not smart. There are long-term effects that we don’t know about,” Gil explains. The trainer said if you eat well and don’t consume a lot of alcohol and try to keep your body pure and work out hard, it may not give you the same results (as steroids), but it’s pretty similar, Gil continued. (10).

While the medical reasons to abstain from steroids are bountiful, the ethical issues also pack a significant punch. Former Colorado Rockies infielder Todd Zeile weighs in: “The sad part is that the issues I hear discussed are whether (using steroids) is taking away from the level playing field or whether there are long-term effects to this stuff,” Zeile says. “I never hear anybody talking about the morality or the ethics of the integrity of the game. It’s cheating in every sense” (10). With that being said, it’s easy to blame the players for the steroid problem. Jerry Brown from the Ethical Resource center says that “unethical conduct in sports is as much a systemic problem as it is one fed by individual greed, and athletes don’t deserve to shoulder all the blame for ethical miscues” (11). It is important to examine all sides of the ethical dilemma at hand.

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Part of the systemic problem that Brown identifies is that of the double standard that has crept into professional sports. For example, sportswriter Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald contributes that “we’re so arbitrary with our judgments in sports. Kirk Gibson hits a famous home run doped up on cortisone, a steroid, and we cheer for the artificial courage that muted his body’s screaming. Not a performance-enhancer? Well, it certainly enhanced that performance, which wouldn’t have been possible without medical help. Jim Haslett claims the 1970s Steelers were on steroids, but that doesn’t seem to bother us so much. We care about baseball’s sacred numbers more, and we don’t like so much that polarizing Barry Bonds is chasing gentleman Hank Aaron, so we scream about the integrity of one game being contaminated while shrugging about the Steelers possibly winning four juiced championships in another. Brett Favre being addicted to painkillers while on an unprecedented streak of consecutive starts? That’s somehow a testament to his strength. Bonds being addicted to being better than everyone else? That’s a testament to his weakness. And we are outraged and dismayed that, in between the commercials for Levitra and anti-depressants, Bonds would have the audacity to bring the pharmacy to the field. Discovering an athlete went looking for an edge, legal or otherwise, artificial or otherwise, is like discovering he has muscles. Seeking advantages is what athletes do for a living, whether it’s the wide receiver wearing uniform pants without seams to be more aerodynamic (Rocket Ismail) or the crazed linebacker sending his feces to a lab monthly to make sure his diet is balanced (Bill Romanowski)” (6). Performance enhancement is not a new idea, nor will it die anytime soon. The ethical issue surrounding steroid use remains very pragmatic in nature.

Ethically speaking, professional sports are very difficult to characterize accurately. Are these worshipped leagues housing games of skill? Or are they simply a showcase for advertisers to reach key demographics? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. When the topic of steroids comes up, it also goes both ways. Former NFL players Jay Hoffman provides his candid opinion: “The media and a lot of the public treat sports as if it was just a sport, but the reality is that when you pay athletes millions of dollars it’s not longer a sport, it’s a business,” Hoffman says. “And when athletes make a decision to use steroids, they’re making a business decision” (12). Much like the stance of national newspaper USA Today, Hoffman understands the economic underpinnings of such a decision. Steroid usage potentially can put a lot of money in the bank. “A cutthroat, businesslike attitude that causes corporations to bend rules and emphasize the bottom line at all costs has worked its way into the sports world” (12).

While the businesslike view of steroids provides a good look at the economic impact of the drug, it is important to understand the legal view of the usage, especially in professional sports. A well-respected prosecutor who has worked steroid cases says the sports world still doesn’t get it. “They’re hyperventilated over the use in baseball, not because of the danger that it presents, but because of the skewing of the playing field,” said the federal prosecutor, who preferred not to be identified. “That is what causes it – the questioning of the records, purity of the game. They could care less about the fact it is illegal. The people who object do so because, ‘Hey, he is cheating the game.’ It is one thing to break the law, but to cheat in baseball – that is serious stuff” (13).

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Yet, the buck doesn’t stop here. With all of the morality, health and legal issues notwithstanding, steroid usage is still around. Take, for instance, the view of steroids expert Bob Goldman. He was curious about how far athletes would go in order to achieve victory. “I made up a hypothetical magic pill. I told them they’d win every competition for five years, but then die from it,” Goldman says (9). The answer he received was not surprising, albeit frightening. Each time he has taken the survey, more than half the athletes have said they would take the pill (9). Research with results such as this show that a systemic ethical problem looms large in the sports world today.

As serious as it already is, steroid use could only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of performance enhancement. With the aforementioned millions of dollars being thrown around television networks and player salaries, it could only be a matter of time before something bigger and better comes to the forefront. Gene doping could be that animal. When the first report was published which demonstrated that gene therapy could enhance mouse muscle, there was a deluge of inquiries from professional power lifters, sprinters, and other athletes as to how they could use this new scientific discovery” (5). Suppose this type of gene therapy could be legal and free of side-effects. Would it be ethically permissible to allow professional athletes to take advantage of the technology? The problem could be that the very things that could be used to treat a disease could also be used to make an apparently healthy person even stronger (5). In my opinion, I would think negatively on the practice. However, not enough data is available for such an argument to take place.

Rushworth M. Kidder, the author of the book How Good People Make Tough Choices, says that “steroids aren’t morally neutral. They damage bodies through prolonged use and give unfair advantage to those who use them. In the past, given the public distaste for steroids, many athletes refused them, so the only users were athletes who either felt no moral tug from that distaste or overcame that tug through rationalization. Result: a classically unlevel playing field on which winning arose not from athletic prowess but from unfair competition” (4). The burgeoning problem today is that a growing number of athletes are giving in to the systemic influence that steroids may be worth the risk.

I will make my point clear. Steroids are illegal. Steroids are immoral. Steroids are unethical. As a professional athlete, the potential financial gain for taking steroids simply is not worth the risk. Whether they like it or not, athletes are role models for youth around the world. Steroid use should be frowned upon at all levels and legal action should be taken. Any and all medical information regarding the drugs should be distributed freely and liberally, especially to young people. Steroid use a multi-faceted ethical dilemma that deserves a true analysis. My position is that steroids are unethical, regardless of circumstance.

Works Cited

1. http://espn.go.com/special/s/drugsandsports/steroids.html

2. http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/ethicalperspectives/steriods-ethics.html

3. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05275/581242.stm

4. http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/members/issue.tmpl?articleid=0321051753567

5. http://www.thesportjournal.org/sport-supplement/vol13no1/02_gene_doping.asp

6. http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/sports/baseball/14043754.htm?source=rss&channel;=miamiherald_baseball

7. http://www.mja.com.au/public/issues/171_4_160899/kennedy/kennedy.html

8. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05278/582577.stm

9. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2003/more/11/26/us.doping.ap/

10. http://www.usatoday.com/educate/college/healthscience/casestudies/20020916-steroids.pdf

11. http://www.ethics.org/resources/article_detail.cfm?ID=817

12. http://www4.desales.edu/SCFC/Baranzano/ET-040105.htm

13. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2004/writers/mike_fish/04/27/steroid.column/index.html