A Modest Proposal for Dealing with Cheating in Professional Sports: Fuhgettaboutit.

Watching pro sports today is nothing more than gazing from one high-priced moral train wreck to another. To wit, Ryan Braun, the disgraced Milwaukee Brewers outfielder, has finally been bounced from baseball for use of performance enhancing drugs. Braun and his duplicitous, two-wheeled compatriot, Lance Armstrong, have not only made fools of us but succeeded in making perpetual fools of themselves through excuses (“I didn’t do it!”) and accusations (“They’re picking on me!”) that would embarrass a fourth grader.

How easily we cleave morality from the athletic excellence. How often have you heard commentators decry the cheating, but then soften the blow by saying “but, he’s not a bad guy,” or, in the case of Armstrong, “he’s done so much for the cancer community?” The inescapable conclusion is that you can be a liar, a jerk, and a cheat (an ignominious trifecta true of both Braun and Armstrong, as well as their predecessor in sleaze, Barry Bonds), but the absolution of milquetoast praise from an airy talking head is only as far away as your latest convivial act, regardless of whether any actual contrition or repentance took place.

This is an all new kind of dualism (but, I think, just as repugnant and ludicrous as the original foisted upon us by Descartes). I prefer to think of people as integrated beings, whose behaviors and speech accurately reflect both who they are and what they are capable of. I know of no body of work describing Braun and Armstrong as anything other than not-so-bright, raging egomaniacs. Maybe that’s what you need to succeed at professional sports, with a little chemical assist, of course.

The way to handle this crisis of faith is to remove all controls. On my own blog, I once proposed a more market-based approach to dealing with sports cheats. I have thought better of that now, and I believe it’s time to actually undo all restraint. I say that all professional sports just unchain the chemists and let the athletes use whatever they want, whenever they want. We’ll find out quickly who passed high school chemistry and who didn’t. Even better, turbo charge the free-for-all by statutorily shielding product manufacturers and complicit medical professionals, so that 20 years from now we are spared the “they didn’t tell me it would cause congestive heart failure and brain cancer” lawsuits.

We — both the athletes and the spectators — are in this for the emotion (who doesn’t love rooting for or being a winner) and the money (we spend, they get rich). When I explained Braun’s suspension to my nine-year-old son, he wondered aloud “why just the rest of this season, why not forever?” He’s similarly offended that Lance Armstrong can only be stripped of past Tour wins and that there’s no future penalty awaiting him, potential civil liability notwithstanding. It troubles my son — and it should — that baseball needs Braun to return to the Brewers because there is a big expensive stadium that isn’t going to pay for itself.

And despite the rumor this morning that Alex Rodriguez may receive a lifetime ban from MLB for using and financing use of steroids, it’s clear that the cat cannot keep up with the mouse. It’s equally ridiculous to issue lifetime bans on athletes at the end of their careers.

Eventually, as competitors are befallen by illness and injuries precipitated by the same drugs that enhance their performance, spectators and sponsors will grow both bored and disgusted. Realizing the near impossibility of producing the perfect cyborg, sponsor estrangement will dry up the money, and that, finally, will make people long for the good ol’ days of competition without chemical conspiracy.

This is all just one more indicia that we are becoming Rome on the verge of the fall. The spectacle engages us so fully that we’ve forgotten how it reflects our baseness. Either that or we just don’t care anymore about the nexus between behavior and personhood and the inter-relatedness of choices made in both the professional and personal realms. The only way to end the sports freak-show is to let modern sports actually become one.

Vik Khanna is a St. Louis-based independent health consultant with extensive experience in managed care and wellness.  An iconoclast to the core, he is the author of the Khanna On Health Blog.  He is also the Wellness Editor-At-Large for THCB.

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19 replies »

  1. I seem to remember not that long ago when sports men and women were held in high esteem because they represented their countries, not because of the amount of money they could bank. Sports is now a competitive business like any other and businesses will always look to improve their product.
    Personally, i think cheaters should be banned from sport for life.

  2. TheMuse: thanks for your note.

    With only a few exceptions, I don’t want my kid trying to emulate any athlete’s life…his skills? Maybe, but certainly not many of their attitudes and beliefs. Letting the sports culture become an overt free-for-all, rather than the covert one it is now, would be an object lesson in and of itself.

    It would help kids understand that there is a big difference between the joyful, healthful aspects of sport and the culture of sports.

  3. In a culture where sporting heros are idolized do we really want our children emulating the actions of doped up athletes? While I think certain drugs on the list should be reevaluated and removed from the prohibited list I think it would be irresponsible to our children to allow a free for all.

  4. Thanks, Vik.

    Our grandson rose to 43rd in the nation in his USTA peer group ranking by age 12. He was once clocked with a boiling 121 mph serve. He was an Ace Machine. All without PED.

    Might he have risen even higher via PED? A 135 mph serve?

    He was — and remains — an “amateur.” But, let’s not kid ourselves. He got a racquet endorsement, went to USTA tournaments all over the nation on others’ dimes. His scholarship now HAS to be worth — what? — a couple hundred grand?


    But, he won’t be going “pro” in any sport, so he won’t face this kind of issue.

    Dunno. Our sports stars are our “gladiators.” We chew them up and spit them out. Being competitive (and making bank) more and more means juicing, long-term physical consequences be damned. This imperative has to be trickling down increasingly into the high schools.

    I’d like to hear from others here.

  5. Bobby: you raise an important issue. In our house, at least, we talk very frankly with our son about illegal drug use (on and off the field) and about the choices he will one day face as a result of peer pressure. In my view, the child’s best defense (and I believe that this is borne out by research) against drug use is parental engagement.

    Unfortunately, you don’t need to spend much time around youth sports leagues to see and hear that many kids will likely get the wrong messages about talent development and competition. I feel badly for thoss kids, but I don’t know that I have an easy answer for their dilemma either.

  6. Thom: thanks for the comment. I like your example of bank deregulation, but I see it a little differently. Unless I am betting on an athlete or in his entourage, what he does to himself of his own accord, does not affect me. Deregulation of banks affected customers, commercial partners, the government, etc. It’s the difference between systemic and local effects.

    There’s no systemic effect to letting athletes eat themselves from the inside out. As long as there is sufficient money in play, there will be someone willing to take risk and supplant him after he is too sick or injured to play. We won’t get away from this problem until it hits us in the face full bore.

  7. DD: guilty on the charges of overwrought and intentional. There are lots of measures of whether or not we are Rome on the brink, nearly all of which are beyond the scope of this space.

    My grievance is that given the prominence that sports have in our culture and economy, we need to figure out a solution to the issue of cheating through illegal use of otherwise legal products in a way that is transparent and understandable to everyone watching. Larry Bird surreptitiously grabbing an opponent’s shorts is cheating, too, but it was at least amusing, a little inventive, and could be both officiated and reciprocated. Injecting illegal drugs, lying about, and defaming others caught up in the process are a completely different level of wrong.

    And, all the major sports (and many minor ones, such as pro cycling) suffer from it. Let ’em take what they want and let’s see how fast their livers and kidneys morph.

  8. Agree completely about Ball Four. One of my favorite sports books ever. As other commenters have noted, all sports have cheating, and baseball is the at fore now largely because of that sport’s obsessive-complusive approach to statistics. The point I was making (albeit dramatically) is that the magnitude of the cheating is significantly greater (scuffing a ball and using an illegal drug are not equatable) and our tolerance for it is too. I don’t think that is a good thing. I think we have even come to view the cheat-get caught-seek redemption process as part of the entertainment.

  9. Yes, because the effects of the free-market experiment (i.e. deregulation of banks) have been so kind to our economy…

    Sarcasm aside, removing all controls in sports would shift the focus from inspiration and the trials of the human spirit, and become yet another venue for corporate entities to dominate the scene.

    A controversial article to say the least, but I’m glad you’ve presented the community with some food for thought.

  10. Maybe a bit off topic – But what is by far the most widely globally used performance enhancing drug? That would be caffeine.

    Just ask Starbucks, Dunkin Doughnuts and WaWa in US alone? On a global basis ask Coca-Cola Corp or the huge tea companies? These products are more drugs than foods. Imagine asking professional athletes to refrain from consuming coffee, tea or coke?

    Dr Rick Lippin

  11. I find this post interesting but overwrought. (Given the Swiftian title, perhaps that’s intentional.) Drugs in sport is nothing new; neither is glorifying athletes when we should be celebrating academics, or public health professionals, or whatever a person’s hobby horse is.

    A twenty-something professional jock who gets busted for cheating doesn’t make us Rome on the brink. Corruption in the military or barbarians at the gate, however, would be cause for concern.

  12. Analyzing baseball and comparing it to the course of American history is a very useful and insightful exercise because of how the social and economic trends of baseball very closely mirror course of America history from the late 19th century even to today.

    Using baseball or professional sporst though to decry in a fall in American ethics or as an indictment of American culture as a hole is ridiculous.

    Pick up a copy of ‘Ball Four’ by Jim Bouton which came out all the way back in 1970 about the current state of baseball in America at the time from his first-hand experience. Still my favorite baseball book and it is hell a lot more insightful on the inner workings of the sport than a sanitized, vastly overrated book like ‘Moneyball.’

    Baseball has always had a high degree of cheating and deplorable whether it came to its actions on the field or off it. Kind of like America but somehow it manages to keep moving ahead forward warts and all.

  13. The one thing you can’t accuse Lance Armstrong of lying about is the title of his autobiography: “It’s Not About the Bike”

  14. “This is all just one more indicia that we are becoming Rome on the verge of the fall.”

    As if any more were needed. We continue to have a Greshman’s Law Superfund Site snake pit of a financial sector. We remain in enthusiastic willful denial with respect to anthropogenic global warming (that alone will spell our aggregate decimation). We swill truckloads of alcohol and calories with excessive comorbidity-inducing abandon. We worship at the altar of an antiquated 2nd Amendment in seriously overdue need of repeal, all while acquiescing passively to the effective Clear and Present repeal of the 4th and the 14th.

    Thought-provoking post here. I find some of it troubling, though.

    ” …let the athletes use whatever they want, whenever they want.”

    Free Market Uber Alles?

    Would you extend that to the kids as well? After all, they’re now building “their Brands” beginning in grade school and the Pee Wee leagues.

    My grandson is about to begin his sophomore year as a scholarship football player (he plays tennis too; his ride includes that as well, as he remains nationally competitive). I would not want him to juice, and, to the best of my knowledge he does not. Luckily he went Div III (St. Olaf). He was recruited heavily at the Div I level, and I bet the PED level there is increasingly rampant. The pressure has to be quite intense.

    What about the kids? Should I pose that question to that sanctimonious USADA twit Travis Tygart, he who finally Took Down The Big One?

    What about the kids? Where will we draw the line?

  15. Vik and I have talked about this offline, but I’ll throw it out there. Somebody should do a moneyball type study on this. It should not be hard to develop algorithms than can detect abnormalities in athlete performance and behavior patterns based on their publicly available statistics. After all, this information is all in the public record. I’d also be interested in quantifying the economic impact of cheating for individual players. Anybody interested in taking a shot at either. Email me at my THCB address.

  16. Rick: thanks for the note. Actually, I think that the problem here is not directly pharma companies, but the physicians and scientists who are smart enough to bastardize otherwise legitimate products for illicit purposes. That’s a virtually impossible field to regulate, so why not just let them all rip. Go for it. Concoct whatever you want to concoct and let’s see how many home runs Ryan Braun can hit and how premature his morbidity and mortality become. It’s a perfect natural experiment.

  17. Vik,

    You make some excellent points here and you always write exceedingly well. My take is that once that the pharmacuetical industry moved from developing products to treat bone-fide diseases to products that enhance performance (there are many examples over decades) we began to move down a dangerous slope. The ultimate bio-medical hubris is believing that we can take products (often dangerous) that prevent aging and even death.

    But your posts are always thought provoking. Thank you!

    Rick Lippin

  18. While we’re at it, as a condition of employment let’s require all professional athletes to participate in what will be – in effect – a giant clinical trial. We’ll collect data on the substances they’re taking and the impact they have on their bodies. That way as they destroy record books and poision their own bodies, we’ll collect invaluable data on the long term medical risks and benefits of banned substances like human growth hormone and practices like blood doping.