I admit to being uncompromising about some things. My enemies use the unflattering term “extremist” to describe me. I may be a million miles off the mark but I am positive of one thing: that only by giving every viewpoint a fair hearing in the open marketplace of ideas can we ever arrive at the truths about performance-enhancing drugs or anything else, and that includes viewpoints that are “bizarrely extreme”.
When it comes to the use of steroids for such benign purposes as looking and feeling better, I hardly need to try to persuade readers of this journal that not only is the practice innocent but that it ought to be encouraged. The evidence is in and it is complete: the dangers of steroid use are as exaggerated as is the rumor that cigarette smoking is less hazardous to your health than a shot of Deca. Can steroids ever do you harm? This question is like “Can eating cheese cake do you harm?” Yes, of course, but I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining how you can “abuse” cheese cake. You can also kill yourself with Vitamin A.
Moreover, I don’t give a damn whether steroids are harmful. Why should physicians, governments and Nazi-like dictators calling themselves “commissioners” care if I abuse my body? I don’t care if they abuse theirs. The only harms that should be regulated are the harms we do to others. People with AIDS should be punished if they have unprotected sex with people who are not infected. People who climb mountains but know nothing about safety should not be. People who drive 100 MPH should have their licenses taken away. People who play Russian Roulette with five bullets and only one empty chamber should play where they won’t make a lot of noise and they should take preliminary steps not to make a bloody mess that somebody else will have to clean up. The addictiveness of heroin is controversial and the methods by which government tries to control it are probably unsound but if it is anywhere near as bad as its detractors maintain then it is a proper object of public concern; on the other hand, since steroids are less harmful than most prescription medicines and are not associated either with habituation or addiction then, so far as I am concerned, they can be sold on the streets by “unscrupulous crooks” even if they risk being contaminated. Let the buyer beware.
I am interested in the allegedly more controversial issue of whether the use of steroids and other enhancers by some professional and some Olympic athletes is cheating and unfair to those who don’t use them. I have absolutely no qualms about rejecting this claim. According to Mr. Rick Collins, a man for whom I have the utmost respect, if a certain practice is illegal you have very good reason not to engage in it. I will try to show this is wrong. Again, according to Rick, if a professional athlete enters into an agreement that contains a tacit or explicit promise not to use drugs then he has every good reason not to use them. Once more, this seems to me to be a mistake, and I will do my best to show why.
Now Rick is both a gentleman and a brilliant attorney but, by his own admission, and to quote him, he doesn’t “give a rat’s ass about sports”. He is interested in the plight of ordinary folk and wants to help them when the police and the courts wrongly come down upon them. Fair enough, but the consequence of his admission is that he doesn’t really know very much about the nature of the agreements into which ALL athletes are coerced. Whether you are a high school swimmer who swims two hours in the morning and another three hours after school or you are a $15 million per year baseball player you are a victim of coercion from the get-go. Professional athletes even have to sign agreements forbidding them from criticizing officials as hopelessly incompetent. Umpires are not allowed to fraternize with athletes because the assumption is that they are not grown-up enough not to develop prejudices with those with whom they share a steak dinner. Baseball players cannot bet on games they are not involved in because the powers-that-be regard gambling as naughty and wicked. God, popes and baseball commissioners regard gambling as downright sinful. Why should you and I regard Pete Rose as a villain if he places a bet on the NY Yankees? Who cares what stupid “promise” was extracted from him? And never forget that the promises, agreements, contracts, tacit or explicit understandings are all stupid. What purpose is served by obliging somebody not to use steroids? Whether any person should stick fast to his promise depends on what its purpose was and whether it was forced on him. Why should I, if I lived in Nazi Germany, turn in Jews who were hiding or other citizens who were criticizing Hitler? In fact, I have an obligation to break my promise, to break the laws that require such conduct. Why should I, if I am a black man, not break the law and sit down at a lunch counter restricted to whites? Why should I pay attention to any damned law whatsoever, no matter how sensible it seems to be – murder, rape, you name it. I’ll explain this “insane” view a little later in this article.
A recent poll of about one thousand teenagers reveals that most of them have lost respect for Barry Bonds because they think he is a cheater. What this shows is the power of propaganda. People are being led by rings through their noses to condemn practices of which they have no understanding. So far as Mr. Bonds is concerned, anybody who knows anything about baseball knows that the ability to refrain from swinging at a 97 MPH fastball that is three inches out of the strike zone owes nothing to ingesting gallons of steroids. Mr. Bonds does that better than anybody whoever played the game. The knowledgeable fan knows, too, that although a strong man may be able to hit a ball farther than a weakling can, his ability to get the meat of the bat on the ball owes zilch to steroids. You won’t even raise your batting average from .360 to .361 no matter what else steroids may do for you. Anyone who knows anything about baseball can observe that Barry’s fluent swing is the best since the days of Ted Williams. Personally, I am sorry Barry didn’t hit 146 homers instead of a mere 73, and I’d be thrilled to know it was mainly due to steroids because that would give me encouragement to pursue my own miserable, flimsy goals.
People have bought into the stupid cliché that they don’t want athletes to be chemical processing factories. The fact, however, is that as great they may be, steroids don’t work miracles. Ben Johnson may have gained .08 second in his celebrated “cheat” at the 1988 Olympics; he did not catch up to a cheetah and eat it alive. Unless you have seen more 100 meter dashes than I have (only 15,000, I admit, in the last fifty years) you can’t tell a 9.2 100 meter performance from a 9.3 performance and you have to wait for the official announcement before you go crazy with applause.
But what abut those poor athletes who have agreed and promised not to use steroids? Don’t Johnson-types and Bonds-types take unfair advantage of them? Not one iota. Not one teeny weeny bit. The steroid user may (I’m not sure) enjoy an advantage but not every advantage is unfair. All of us are advantaged relative to people living in Rwanda but that doesn’t mean we are cheaters. Pavarotti took advantage of his vocal chords to make $millions each year and then, to rub it in, took very expensive singing lessons to widen the gap between himself and us. God bless him. I’m glad he didn’t have surgery on his chords to lessen the gap so that the “race to the top” would be fair. I’m the beneficiary of his greatness just as I am the beneficiary of Bonds’ greatness. So who cares that John Doe doesn’t use steroids? Why doesn’t he? He owes it to us to use them because we pay hundreds of dollars to see him play and we deserve the best he can give us, especially when you remember he is getting $3 million for his lousy substandard performances. And now I’ll tell you why he doesn’t use them. For one thing, he has fallen prey to the absurdity that his brain will fall out, his liver will decay and legs fall off if he shoots up with some Deca. You and I know better. Why praise him for his ignorance? Why marvel at his virtue and honesty? For another thing, up until recently he found legal ways to cheat. He swallowed andro and dozens of other supplements. He drank protein drinks by the ton and filled himself up (and still does) with creatine. He did everything in his power to turn himself into a chemical factory in ways that his masters approved. Small-mindedly, he was bitter over the minute advantage that he thinks the steroid user may have still held. So he bitched loud and clear and like Jose Canseco sold books by the tens of thousands.
Ronnie Coleman was interviewed by a NY Times sports columnist who had the courage to ask him straight out, “Do you use steroids?” Ronnie is too smart for this idiocy. He shot back, “Why do you ask? Do you think that if you used steroids day and night and trained as hard as I do that you would look like I do?. The answer is obvious. Do you think that if you watched your diet carefully and practiced as faithfully as Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods that you would play the way they do? Ronnie’s world is the world of professional bodybuilders and whatever he does they do. There are no secret, unfair advantages that any of them gets over the others.
But in the dumb world of baseball, football, and track and field, some guys and gals do it and others don’t. For heaven’s sake, what of it? It only matters because a few conservative lowbrows who have placed themselves in charge of athletes’ lives want them to be “clean” as they perceive “clean” to be. Athletes, being young for the most part, and only episodically able to think for themselves and even more rarely able to assert their autonomy, do as they are told. They make promises and enter into agreements that have all the good sense that having sex with a crocodile has. Now and then, one of them asks himself, “What the hell am I doing, listening meekly to these morons whose principal joy in life is controlling me?”. I like that. I like when he breaks his promises and agreements.
I want to move on to some philosophical considerations. The great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, regarded among academic philosophers as the most important philosopher since antiquity, made autonomy and self-respect the lynchpins of morality. Self-respect requires that you never surrender your autonomy. Simply put, autonomy refers to being independent of the will of others. Slavery is and was the greatest assault imaginable on autonomy, but every form of obedience is a surrender of autonomy. The rational person cannot give up the right to question anything and everything. A man who sells himself into slavery for the sake of some material good makes the greatest intellectual moral error he can possibly commit. If his “master” promises him the good life in exchange for his soul he has blundered horribly. Both have. A man who wants obedience is a tyrant, a despot and it doesn’t matter whether he is a so-called “benevolent despot”. No man should grovel at the feet of another no matter how wise that “another” may be.
What has this to do with the concrete issues of drug use? Everything. First, some tangential examples. Should you obey the traffic laws? Should you obey the laws that say murder and rape are wrong? Once more, I don’t think so. No, I don’t advocate anarchy. I don’t advocate that every time you come to a red light that you check to see if a cop is watching and, if not, that you go as you please. For the most part, the traffic laws make sense. I regard them as guides to sensible conduct. Utter chaos would result if each of us disregarded the traffic lights and did “as we think best”. We’d all be losers including the persons who disdained the laws. That does not mean we should “obey” the traffic laws. I prefer to say that common sense tells us that we should voluntarily conform to the requirements of the law, that we should make this conformity nearly habitual, always reserving the right to violate the “dictates” of law when the common good requires it, not merely when it serves our selfish purpose. We should regard traffic law and all others as guides to sensible and moral conduct. As for rape and murder, do we really need reminders that these behaviors are too horrible to condone? Surely the laws against them don’t exist for that purpose. They exist to put order into our lives, to help us construct rational codes of punishment. Insofar as decent people don’t contemplate rape it is, or should be, only because rape is too obviously awful for words. I would not want as a friend a man who never committed rape merely because he believed it was against the law and who felt an obligation to obey, while deep down he was straining at the leash to assault women.
Obedience, then, is bad; it is always a surrender of our free will. But a good will is enough. In a world of angels we would not need law at all. It has also been pointed out that in a world of demons, laws would be useless. In the real world we are neither angels nor demons. We are rational persons and that, too, is good enough.
Let me turn to the argument that professional athletes have made agreements not to use drugs and, for that reason alone, even if drug use is benign or wonderful, they have obligations not to use them. If they don’t like such agreements they are entitled to do all in their power to undo them. I find this argument untrue to many facts. In the first place, such agreements or tacit understandings are of very recent vintage. When Mark McGwire “confessed” to using androstenedione he was admitting to using a substance altogether legal and not contrary to the rules of baseball. It may be that Mr. McGwire also used steroids but that has not yet been settled. What is beyond dispute is that his use of a substance widely available at health food stores violated no overt or tacit agreements between himself and baseball moguls. Yet, even before the dust has settled, even before suspicions were raised about his use of steroids, Mr. McGwire had fallen into disrepute. He had become a modern version of Shoeless Joe Jackson, and people everywhere were pleading “Say it ain’t on the mark, Mark.”
Now things are different. Even the prohormones are evil substances and have been removed from the market. Why so? Not, so far as I know, because new evidence shows them to be unusually high in toxicity but because they are suspected of being effective in what they are sold for. Can something that was legal yesterday be terrible because today it is illegal? Any athlete who enters into an agreement not use performance-enhancers does so unwillingly. What are his realistic options? Can a young man, earning $5 million throw away his career and announce to the authorities, in Martin Luther fashion, “Here I stand and can do no other.”? What has changed? Today is Wednesday and yesterday was Tuesday and therefore we insist you do as you are told. What we allowed you to do Tuesday now strikes us as evil because it is Wednesday. This is no caricature of the proceedings; this is exactly how it works. Promises now being made by athletes are extracted from them entirely unwillingly, and everyone knows this. And just as a person who accepts slavery has no real obligation to remain a slave given the opportunity to escape, so is it with athletes.
Well, you may say, but some athletes want to honor their promises however loathe they were to make them. So these athletes, by refraining from the use performance enhancers are being taken unfair advantage of by those who are violating the rules. False! And a damn lie, too. Athletes who don’t use illegal enhancers are simply frightened to death that they will be caught or stupidly think they will suffer great physical harms. As for the latter, I have no patience for those who won’t do the research. As for the former – those bludgeoned into conformity – why should they not be taken advantage of? Why shouldn’t those who have the courage to go their own way not take advantage of their timid, mentally-dwarfed colleagues? It is right and good that they use substances they swore up and down not to use.
What is unfair? I’ll tell you what is unfair. It is trying to make cowards of us all. It is constructing a set of ugly, idiotic rules that you bully people into obeying. It is then telling the cowards how noble their unthinking conformity to the rules is. It is telling them to join the chorus of boos that rain down on the steroid users. It is endlessly repeating the refrain against cheating, turning the choir into zombies. Enhancing one’s body, like enhancing one’s mind, is good. That is all there is to that. The rest is garbage.