The idea that anabolic steroid use is detrimental to sports is far from new. We were raised with forefingers waggled in our noses, the cry ‘Drugs are bad!’ ringing in our ears. We regard the performances of those who abused substances as lesser and mentally index A-Rod’s 661 home runs with a note (took steroids) to flag their inferiority, granting the statistic an almost vacuous status.
But why do we do this? There are certainly health risks associated with abuse of anabolic steroids, the most alarming of which is a potentially fatal change in the structure of the heart. These cases are rare, however, and doesn’t every drug have its side effect? Cigarettes, alcohol, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, etc. — all these drugs that we encounter every day have warning labels stamped prominently on their packages, heeding us to be mindful that we don’t destroy our livers, lungs, stomachs, etc.
Anabolic steroids cause users to gain muscle more rapidly than they would through the use of any permitted ergogenic aid. The user experiences less strain when lifting heavier weights and feels bursts of energy at the end of his sets when non-users would feel fatigue. His muscles recover more quickly. It clearly gives users an advantage, but why is that so deplorable? Doesn’t it allow athletes to perform better and increase the entertainment value of sports? Don’t fans like to see home runs?
Of course they do. But that takes for granted why we find sports entertaining. Part of it is because we like to watch people — people like us! That could be us! — perform superhuman feats. We like to see athletes push the limits of what we thought we could achieve. We like to see records broken and set and broken again because it suggests growth and development. What better way to verify our progress than the most natural test of all? How hard can you hit, how far can you throw, how fast can you run, how high can you jump…?
So I believe that steroids undermine the very value we place on sports. Raw talent taken to new heights through hard work is admirable because we track development in this way. No one wants to see any Captain America-type injections transform a zero into a hero.
There’s a normative claim to be made, too. With anabolic steroids costing around $3 a tab, cashing out to about $1,500 for 10 weeks, abusing performance-enhancing drugs becomes a pretty expensive habit. Equipment is already expensive. Were the sports community to accept the use of anabolic steroids, then there goes the poorer part of the population, marginalized from yet another career path. You can have a natural phenom, but she’ll wane in comparison to her wealthier neighbor who could afford performance-enhancing drugs and get that extra boost.
I doubt that the sports community would ever consent to steroid usage among growing minors, but only major-league athletes make the type of money that lends to spending $50,000 at a club on any given night. Athletes working to ascend the ranks receive paychecks that more closely resemble members’ of the working class than A-Rod’s, so money remains a matter of concern.
The pressure that athletes are under to perform excellently on a consistent basis is not irrelevant, however. One may be working as hard as he always has and find that he isn’t producing the same results. Athletes are not impervious to age, injury and fatigue. Not everyone is Tim Duncan. In fact, no one can escape Father Time. So to produce for their teams and their fans on a national stage with everyone watching, where no mistake goes unnoticed, athletes may think that anabolic steroids are a justified answer. I’m sympathetic to this concern on an individual level, but athletes who do this are cheating the game and preventing younger, up-and-coming athletes from finding their roles.
Also relevant to the steroids-are-bad discussion is that there are no real gains in improving the strength and speed of human beings through anabolic steroids. We have machines that can lift far more than any living being ever could. Even more than Captain America. It’s not a matter of utility and benefit; it’s a matter of entertainment, personal financial gain and pride. And that simply can’t justify the health costs, the unfairness and the devaluation of sports.
So keep waggling your fingers at A-Rod, at Lance Armstrong, at any abuser of anabolic steroids. They compromise the game, and there’s no real benefit to justify that.