Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Better than Human?

Roger Clemens is desperately trying to save his honored place in baseball history by denying that he ever used anabolic steroids or human growth hormone in order to improve his athletic performance. He isn't looking very credible right now, and it's a sin to tell a lie, but it is far from obvious to me why underlying allegations are so despicable.

I can think of a few reasons why people condemn the use of performance enhancing drugs. One is that it is held to give the athlete an unfair advantage. But athletes do all sorts of unnatural things to their bodies, and those who are fortunate enough to have more resources devoted to their training have an advantage over those who do not. This begins in childhood, with children of affluent families, who happen to be born in societies that invest more resources into developing athletes, or who just happen to attend the right school and have the right coaches, get advantages over all the other children. Athletic training includes systematic exercise and carefully designed nutritional regimens which produce abnormal muscle mass and endurance. Athletes use all sorts of technologies and tricks to enhance their physical capacities and skills. If you think there is something wrong with using peformance enhancing drugs, you have to explain how they are different from nutritional supplements and training regimens.

One argument that is often proposed is that they cause long-term health consequences. But so does training and playing the game. Professional athletes, and even college athletes whose careers end in their early 20s commonly end up with crippling arthritis or joint injuries. Repeated head injuries result in problems ranging from subtle personality changes to patent dementia. Enlarged hearts can result in early death. In fact the evidence for long-term damage from hormone use is quite inconclusive.

Some people make a distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" methods for improving athletic performance, but that's really a hard distinction to make. Clemens is alleged to have used hormones to speed healing of injuries and fight the decline in muscle mass associated with aging. How is that less natural than tendon replacement surgery, which many pitchers undergo? What about taking antidepressants, or pain killers, or cortisone injections, or all the other unnatural things that people do to overcome debility?

What if other means are developed to slow down or reverse the natural aging process, and the FDA decides the benefits outweight the side effects? We'll probably all want to use them -- just as women used hormone replacement therapy until it was shown that it doesn't have the promised benefits. Will it be considered unethical for athletes to use these accepted medications to extend their careers? How different would that be from what Clemens is accused of doing?

It is against the law to use prescription drugs without a prescription, but I have never heard of anyone being prosecuted for using black market Viagra, and Rush Limbaugh got off with a slap on the wrist for taking thousands of doses of Vicodin. Plenty of athletes who are in the Hall of Fame were caught at one time or another using recreational drugs, and merely served suspensions, if that.

The only issue here, as far as I can tell, is whether the Rocket's actions violated the rules. And at the time, Major League Baseball made no effort to enforce the rules in question. It's not even clear that the substances were explicitly banned. There are significant questions of personal autonomy here. If someone wants to use chemicals to enhance their physical capacities, knowing that there may be potential adverse effects, why can't they make that choice? Athletes make the same kind of choice every time they lift heavy weights, or run a marathon, or take the field.

Just something to think about.

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