Say it ain’t so…

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The news that another superstar has admitted to using performance enhancing drugs should come as no surprise to baseball fans. The use of anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and a variety of other supplements comes less than a generation after amphetamines were used to try to artificially maximize athletic ability. The surprise should be that fans actually care. The culture of baseball has tolerated and celebrated cheating as part of the fabric of the game. Players corked bats and used spitballs, coaches would steal signs and groundskeepers would water infields to hamper opponents. All are accepted as part of getting an edge.

What made performance enhancing drugs different? Was it the perception that they were illegal? Mark McGuire used androstinedione, an over the counter food supplement available at any corner health food store, and he was vilified for destroying the integrity of the game. But players can have surgery to improve their body function and are applauded. LASIK surgery can improve vision to better than 20/20 so that a fastball can be distinguished from a curve more readily.

Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees admitted to using anabolic steroids after results drug test done in 2003 was leaked to the press. His urine test was positive for primobolan and testosterone, two anabolic steroids that work by allowing a player to train harder and perhaps return from injury more quickly. The increase amount of muscle mass along with better nutrition and training techniques may increase running, hitting and throwing performance. Interestingly, primobolan has the benefit of being available in a pill form compared to most other anabolic steroids that require injections.

The race to improve performance artificially is catching. If one person in a locker room starts, it may spread to others and from team to team. Rodriguez apologized saying that he was young and caught up in the culture of drug use. Behavior research shows that many athletes would do almost anything to win. Olympic hopefuls would exchange years off their life for a gold medal and the fame, glory and riches that would accompany such a win. It is the individual athlete that decides what goes into their body. Elite athletes understand nutrition, training techniques and can sense when their body is about to malfunction. It’s like the warning light that goes off in a car when one of the sensors detects the potential for a problem. But the athlete’s competitive life is short, measured in just a few years. Time taken away from training is time lost forever and when the potential of lost salary may be counted in the millions, the temptation is great to take a short cut to recovery.

So far, society has shown an inclination to have a level playing field when it comes to drugs. Anti-doping officials play a cat and mouse game with athletes and their chemists. Designer drugs are developed to pass urine testing while drug tests are developed to find those hidden drugs.

Ultimately, though, it is the fan and their entertainment dollar who will decide the fate of performance enhancing drugs. The innocence of the child fan, who adores the sport and reveres the athlete, eventually gives way to the commercial nature of sport. If the public tolerates athletes’ behavior, then the status quo will exist and there is little hope to expect performance that is based on perseverance and perspiration. But the public should not be overlooked since it can choose to show with its pocketbook, its approval or disdain of the actions of others. Perhaps we can hope that they will choose to return to a simpler time when what we saw was really what we saw.

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