Why drugs in sports is about competition, not cheating

Joy R. Absalon / USA TODAY Sports

In October 1970, the California State Assembly's Health and Welfare Subcommittee on Drug Abuse and Alcoholism turned its attention to the world of sports. As chairperson William Campbell put it, the committee intended "to explore the extent to which drugs play a part in athletic competition." To be specific:

The fact that we are a drug-oriented society is a well established cliché; the fact that sports are now included within the context of a "turned on society" only confirms the extent to which chemicals are an inseparable aspect of American life.

Team doctors for the then-California Angels and the San Francisco Giants appeared at the hearing. The pair shared the same general sentiment. Angels doctor J.V. Rasinksi insisted that neither the team nor the sport as a whole had ever experienced a major drug issue. Giants doctor Eldor Siler said his athletes were treated "much the same as we would use in private practice," and said that while he didn't know if players were using amphetamines, "we do not have them available."

However, when pressed, holes in baseball's image as a drug-free sport became apparent. The question of who is accountable for the athlete's health and the doctor's ethics reveals apparent conflicts of interest:

Similar conflicts were revealed in Dr. Siler's testimony as well:

The statements here shed light on the many different strains the growing drug problem placed on Major League Baseball. Doctors face pressure from their bosses to throw ethics aside and get players on the field, sometimes exacerbated by the player's fear of lost wages due to injury. Executives and coaches are forced to balance the need to win tomorrow's game with the health of their players. And the players themselves are forced to balance their health and the abstract morality issues of drug use with the stark prospect of losing wages or a position in the league if their performance drops.

Focus, however, was most often directed on the integrity of competition. The importance of this strain becomes clear with a further look at Chairperson Campbell's opening statements.

There is no doubt that drugs have a definite role to play when required for the treatment of injury -- and injury is an inevitable consequence of physical competition. When drugs assume a position of competitive importance beyond this role, however, the nature of competition and the role of sports in general becomes a perversion of its original purpose.

We have endeavored successfully to define distinctions regarding the use of drugs when horses compete against one another. I optimistically believe horse racing policies protect both the nature of competition and the health of the horse. I feel it is incumbent upon us, at this hearing today, to attempt to do no less for human competitors.

This focus on the competitive ideal has been one of the few constants of the sports drug war. The drugs have changed, from amphetamines to steroids to human growth hormone and the constant arms race pitting tests against masking methods. Initially, Olympic sports were the most questioned, but the spotlight now shines on nearly every major sport in the United States. Athletic salaries have skyrocketed in the age of free agency. Organizations like the World Anti-Doping Association have been formed to combat drug use. But throughout the history of American sports, no matter what sport or what athlete is under fire, the question of the integrity of competition has always been critical, whether at a 1970s senate hearing, or in a 1988 George Will column, or in a 2001 Supreme Court decision.

Competition is a critical symbol in American society and particularly in American sports, where competition is chief among the claimed benefits of the massive sports industry. In 1973, Harry Edwards described competition as one of the seven central themes of what he called "the American sports creed:"

Competition: composed of statements and slogans relating sport specifically to the development of fortitude and more generally to preparation for life and providing opportunities for advancement for the individual.

Such a view is occasionally challenged, as it was in a 1971 issue of Look magazine. focusing on the dangers of youth sports:

"Right now, the conviction that sports are doing what we say they are doing for our kids [building confidence, cooperation, manliness]* is a myth," says Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, Jr. professor of education at New York University. "We just don't know the psychological and emotional effects."

*brackets from original

Brown's challenge doesn't undermine the concept so much as suggest we must collect more data. Still, it is rebuffed in typical fashion later in the same article by Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith of Teachers College in New York:

"Complaints against sports competition [for kids]** often were based on the simplistic notion that cooperation was all good and competition all bad," says Dr. Sutton-Smith. "That's crazy, an overreaction to the system--very feminine, a sort of hysterical response to the nature of life in this culture."

**brackets from original

Sutton-Smith's response makes clear how deeply the attack on the symbol of competition cuts. His response is extremely emotional, sexist, and relies on non-falsifiable claims about human nature and American culture. An emotional response to the symbol of competition, however, is common in American society, particularly for those who are involved in or close to the business world. As Francis X. Sutton et al. explain in their 1956 work The American Business Creed:

But competition plays much more than a logical role in the ideology. It is an emotional symbol, set off by its antithesis, monopoly, and there is much evidence that it has a wide appeal outside business. The reason seems apparent -- it symbolizes the basic patterns of universalism and achievement in our society.

In all kinds of contexts -- athletic, scholastic, political, occupational, as well as business -- we have a strong moral commitment to open the race equally to all, to impose the same rules on all contestants, to expect each to do his best within the rules to win, to award prizes to the winners, to applaud the efforts of the losers and expect them to be "good sports." Nothing is more important than "fair play" -- an equal chance for all contests and adherence by all to a set of impartial rules. Competition implies all of these things, and business competition draws much of its symbolic appeal from the wider reference of the word. All of us have disappointing experiences with competition; we lose, or think the race was unfair, or suspect the rules were broken, or believe the race was fixed. But such experiences only intensify our emotional attachment to the symbol.

Major League Baseball is and always has been a huge part of the business world. Its owners come from the business world as does its tremendous income from sponsorship. And, of course, sports are the preferred leisure option for many businessmen. As such, the resolution of the other strains of drug use in athletics were secondary to maintaining the image of clean competition. Major League Baseball cannot maintain itself in the American business world otherwise; it must be a fundamental truth of the league that its competition is pure, has always been pure, and will always be pure.

This creates a huge conflict for MLB, as the non-competition strains of drug use -- the health of the players, the ethics of the doctors, the issues of employment through the team as opposed to by a neutral party -- are only exacerbated by competition itself. The competition for wages makes drug use attractive to players, the competition for wins makes drug use by players attractive to teams, and competition for prestigious team doctor positions makes doctors unwilling to stand up to management.

This view of the problem makes it so apparent why no other solution other than the current one, which places the totality of the responsibility and punishment for drug use on the player, has ever been tried. When confronted with an irreconcilable conflict between the ideology of competition and the welfare of the players, Major League Baseball (and the entirety of the American sports institution) responded by integrating the decision of drug use into the competition itself.

It's an easy sell to the American sports community, ever obsessed with individualism and ever ready to "think the race was unfair" and blame the opponent. It also fit neatly into the first two of Edwards's themes of the sports creed, character and discipline:

Character: encompasses general statements pertaining to character development and relating sports to such traits as clean living, proper grooming, "red-bloodedness," and so forth; and statements specifically relating sport to the development of loyalty and altruism.

Discipline: relates sport to the development of social and/or self-control

The other strains of drug use in sport have intensified as athlete salaries have risen and the health effects of painkillers and other drugs have become apparent. But these are not the concerns of those deeply embedded in the American sport and political culture. The mantra of competition is too critical to the mindset of the country for its sporting organizations to show such a blemish.

Recall Chairperson Campbell, for whom horse racing served as the model for the treatment of athletes. The non-competitive strains of drug use in horse racing begin and end with the barrel of a shotgun. In following the same template for athletes, the American sports institution guaranteed the underlying problems of drug use in sports would remain.

Why drugs in sports is about competition, not cheating
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