07 June 2007

Steroids #2: Nothing Wrong with Steroids

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 10, 2007

With Barry Bonds chasing Hank Aaron’s home run record, it’s worth considering whether professional baseball and football should permit steroids. For this discussion, I shall ignore the fact that the federal nannies have made steroids illegal (it is a schedule III controlled substance with punishment of up to one year for possession and up to five years for distribution).

National Review columnist Dayn Perry points out that athletes use testosterone, a male sex hormone, to increase strength and decrease body fat and thereby enhance their performance. It’s controversial whether adult males can safely use steroids. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State epidemiologist and longtime steroid expert cited by Perry, asserts that steroid use is probably safe when used reasonably and under a physician’s direction. The “probably” is explained by the shameful fact that in the roughly 65 years that anabolic steroids have been used (steroids derived from testosterone), there has not been a single epidemiological study of the effects of long-term steroid use. Nevertheless, let us accept the steroid-critics’ claim that they heighten the risk of different cancers, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, ligament and tendon damage, and addiction.

There are two types of rules that are relevant here. Constitutive rules make a sport what it is. For example, the notion that in soccer, players other than the goalie cannot touch the ball with their hands makes soccer what it is. Regulative rules merely affect how it is played. Consider, for example, the rule in baseball allowing for a designated hitter. Among the regulative rules are rules that prevent players from harming others or harming themselves. For example, the rule in football that prevents players from using their helmets to spear others protects against harm to others. Other rules prevent players from harming themselves. Both types of rules affect who gets to play and how well they do.

There is nothing wrong with professional sports permitting steroids. If a rule protects against harm to self and primarily affects who plays, then it is morally discretionary as to whether the league should adopt it. The rule permitting steroids protects against harm to self and primarily affects who plays. While I don’t think this is relevant, many people find this claim especially appealing when the protection doesn’t hurt the league business or decrease the quality of play.

Consider an analogy. In 2005, nearly 56% of NFL players were obese according to medical standards that focus on the height-to-weight ratio. According to Joyce Harp, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this puts them at greater risk for ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, and damaged joints. Still, it seems permissible for the NFL to permit linemen to weigh more than 250 lbs. even if doing so puts their health at risk. The players themselves decide whether to risk their health and heavier linemen don’t appear to be driving away fans or reducing the caliber of play.

One objection raised against the league permitting steroids is that it disrespects the game. This rests on a misunderstanding of moral duties, which can only be owed to things with interests (for example, persons and pigs) rather than things without them (for example, games and dirt).

A second objection is that steroids prevent baseball or football from being a true test of ability. It’s hard to know what to make of this claim. Players use an array of training methods that are anything but natural, whatever that means. For example, professional athletes benefit from computer-modeled biomechanical guidance, eye surgery that gives them better vision, sophisticated muscle and joint surgeries, laboratory designed nutrition, and scientifically tested conditioning programs. If they don’t prevent games from being a true test of ability, it’s hard to see why steroids would.

A third objection is that steroid use puts pressure on other players to use steroids. The same is true of the competitive pressure on linemen to bulk up or hitters to lift weights and most people think the league should permit these activities even if they endanger health.

A fourth objection is that steroids are aesthetically displeasing. For example, they disturb the sanctity of baseball’s hallowed records. Even if this is true, it’s irrelevant. There’s no duty to be aesthetically pleasing. For example, we don’t think fat people are moral failures. In addition, comparisons between generations are notoriously difficult and records hide this difficulty. For example, Rocky Marciano used to fight at roughly 192 lbs. He can’t easily be compared to modern fighters such as Lennox Lewis at roughly 247 lbs. since Rocky was much lighter. Other comparisons are similarly difficult. Baseball’s greatest player, Babe Ruth, didn’t have to face black players and pitchers like Bob Gibson pitched on a higher mound and didn’t have to face a designated hitter. In any case, the tradeoff between having the best athletes and comparing records is subjective and depends on what fans prefer. Given the vast amount of attention paid to the Mark McGuire/Sammy Sosa home run race a few years back, it wouldn’t be surprising if the fans preferred seeing the best athletes.

A fifth objection is that steroid use in professional leagues might encourage teens to take steroids. However, within limits, we don’t have to restructure entertainment to make it maximally safe for children. For instance, it is permissible for persons to watch movies that pose some risk to children (showing “The Deer Hunter” might encourage teens to play Russian roulette). It’s also permissible for professional hockey to tolerate fighting even if it encourages teens to do the same.

Leaving aside the law against steroids, there’s nothing wrong with professional sports leagues permitting steroid use. The league isn’t morally required to be in the business of protecting players against themselves. Nor is it clear that permitting steroids will hurt business or the quality of play.


The Objectivist said...

Note NFL players with concussions appear to be at added risk for depression and there is anecdotal evidence of other dangers. Yet it is not obvious that we shouldn't allow players to keep only playing after they have had one or two concussions if they want to take the risk.

If steroid-nannies actually had to quantify the risks of steroids and compare it to other risks we allow players to take all the time, we would see that their arguments not even mildly convincing.

The Objectivist said...

The notion that steroids is not natural is the usual confused thinking based on the notion that we can get work out of the notion of natural functions or activities.

This is entirely unhelpful because there is nothing that satisfies both of these requirements.

1. There is a mind-independent account of natural activity (e.g., not favored by evolution over the millions of years of human development or statistically normal)J.

2. Unnatural activities are morally wrong.

The Objectivist said...

The ban on steroids shows what complete filth people like Orrin Hatch are. They can't help but criminalize more and more harmless-to-others activities and yet don't legalize anything once its criminalized. The U.S. then becomes the world leader in per capita incarceration and we have an incredible number of law enforcement who have no respect for citizens or civil liberties.

This is not a good pattern and it's getting worse.

The Constructivist said...

O, you may appreciate this post by Bill Benzon at WAAGNFNP. I've plugged yours over there but if you join in the comments, some of the Party faithful may venture over here to engage you directly!

aaron said...

I have a feeling that the banning is purely a business decision. Make rules that keep the majority of your customers happy.

It does baffle me that the government would waste it's time trying to legislate entertainment. Would the next logical step be to remove Apocalypse Now from the AFI top 100 because of drug use during the production?

Stats aside Dock Ellis remains my personal favorite.

Billy said...

Most ballplayers today are taking homeopathic hgh oral spray because it's safe, undetectable, and legal for over the counter sales. As time goes on it seems it might be considered as benign a performance enhancer as coffee, aspirin, red bull, chewing tobacco, and bubble gum.