Even more than the game, drugs destroy athletes

Last week I had to write a paper for Introduction to Psychology about mind-enhancers, drugs currently in development that would help brains work more quickly and more sharply, effectively making users smarter. I wondered if such drugs might help me finish the assignment. In our papers we were asked to explain the benefits and risks of these drugs, and to weigh in on the question posed: are mind-enhancers “cheating?” As a sports fan, I drew the obvious connection.

“Brain Doping?” I titled my piece. I’ve heard a lot about cheating. I’ve thought about it some. And I know it’s bad. Athletes out there, stop cheating. Cheating ruins the game. Stop.

If only it were so easy. Performance-enhancing drugs, those nasty chemicals that athletes are guzzling down, rubbing in and shooting up, are here to stay. They’ve made their way into almost every professional sport, and even created a new sport in the process. Now we all get to guess who’s doping and who’s clean. Head to Vegas and you can drop money on your guesses. Just make sure you cover the spread, because it’s not enough to say slammin’ Sammy Sosa’s been hitting the juice. You’ve got to call him out, naming which drugs he’s taken and when. This is the new sport, replacing the old times when people simply sat and watched.

But in all the hubbub, some voices are drowned out. We hear the shouts of enraged fans, their sports mercilessly torn from purer eras, when the babes playing in the street and in the fields could look up to their athletes, those stoic giants, noble and morally firm. Writers, too, cry out from all corners. In this modern age they are joined by “anchors,” suits behind a desk with rigid spines and pomade hair, crafted smiles on wax figurines. The wails are always the same. Players — sinners! — have brutally violated the games. The punishments must be swift and harsh. These criminals must be found, they must be confronted, and they must be forced out. Sports, remember, is a world of purity, of natural cleanliness. Syringes don’t belong here.

I agree with the rhetoric, at least to a point. The world of sports is not for cheaters. I used to be the kid in gym class who pissed off the others by trying to enforce the rules. I don’t get along well with anarchists. Or cheaters. But there are other voices out there, muffled under the deafening glow of ESPN neon and the invisible radiation of 24-hour sportstalk radio, and they’re asking: Who’s cheating?

Or really, what’s cheating? Is it cheating to inject anabolic steroids into your buttocks, or, better yet, have a teammate do it for you? (Sharing is caring!) Yeah, sure, when everyone’s outlawing the stuff. But why is it against the rules in the first place? Why can’t Gaylord Perry throw his spitter? Why can’t bats be stuffed with cork? These rules come from somewhere, I guess.

And it all goes back to purity. Sport, after all, isn’t just entertainment. The original Olympians, heroes of sport around the world, saw nothing lighthearted or comical in their competition. Under the mountain of the gods they played, besting one another in competitions of strength and skill to honor the powers above. Zeus, one can imagine, was no fan of artificial enhancers. He liked athletes natural, apparently so much so that even clothing was off-limits. From this history we receive the spirit of sport: Competition is to be played fairly and naturally, without help from extra-human objects, artifacts, or chemicals that can be manufactured, bought and sold. Nothing but grass and human flesh on any field where fair play is to be found.

So here we find ourselves today. The fields, once clean, are soaked in juice. Baseball players, bicyclists and track athletes are among the most egregious violators — or at least the most visible. The Olympics, in their modern-day incarnation, have lost luster as a result of the doping scandals across sports. And no one seems ready or able to stop the abuse.

But there’s another problem to doping, one not seen on the field. As new anti-steroid messages illustrate visually with limbs falling off bodies, steroids are wildly destructive to their users. Though they may feel like magic to an athlete recovering from an injury or simply looking for easy strength, their longer-term effects are undeniable and devastating. Ken Caminiti, the whistle-blower for the steroid problem in major league baseball, died three years ago of a heart attack, at age 41, and only eight years after winning baseball’s Most Valuable Player award. He had taken steroids during his MVP season, and for several years after. It is the players, much more than the games, that we must protect.

Steroids and other performance enhancers are a true threat to sports. They challenge the ideals of sports, passed down to us from the Greeks and more recently from earlier decades of professional competition, when athletes more closely resembled real people. But more important than the games are the athletes themselves, whose physical health is threatened. Sports fans and commentators bemoan their beautiful games lost to artificial enhancers, charging the players with destroying competition by cheating. But what about the players?

Athletes — those who dope, who take steroids, who cheat — are victims of far more serious maladies than their sports. They will pay the price with their own lives, not too many years after they retire. Meanwhile, the only offense to us, the fans, is uncertainty: we must wonder which records and stats are “natural” and should be free from scrutiny and asterisks. I charge the sports-loving world to take a different look at steroid use (or abuse). Sinners? Athletes are as free as other people to make mistakes and suffer the consequences; in short, they are humans like the rest of us. Or at least they were before they started juicing.

Pete Martin is a sophomore in Morse College. He is a guest columnist for the News.

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