Monday, January 13, 2014

Doping in Pro Sports: Four Possible Critiques

In Days of Thunder, Tom Cruise's character explains why he left Formula 1 for the world of NASCAR. "To win in Indy I'd need a great car, but stock cars are all the same… I won't be beaten by a car. Only by a driver." NASCAR, Trickle evidently believes, provides a fairer playing field where money, sponsor, and mechanic matters less than the grit of the individual athlete. A fitting encapsulation of the idea of sportsmanship and mano-a-mano competition. Of course, that assumes that sports like F1 let some players make an unfair advantage. 

What am I getting at? I've been pondering the repeated scandals of doping in major league sports. You know the roll. A-rod. Lance Armstrong. Bonds. Chinese swimmers.
The basic story is the same: athletes violate the rules and spirit of the game by using performance enhancing substances to grow larger muscles, accelerate speed and endurance, and just generally cheat. The scandals have garnered beaucoup media coverage and water cooler conversation. They have ruined careers and tarnished records. But considering the many other scandals of pro athletes, why does doping invoke such visceral aversion?

Four possibilities I'd like to explore:

1. Athletes are role models and as such should avoid anything that impugns their records--like cheating.
2. Doping disrupts the playing field and makes a finely-tuned contest of prowess decidedly unequal.
3. Sport--not as a contest but as a multi-billion dollar industry--is already lacking in legitimacy. Doping attacks what little claim to legitimacy and authenticness pro sports claim. (Cynicism alert!)
4. Doping blurs or outright destroys the line between what is natural and what is not.
Athletes, so a certain logic goes, are spokespersons for fair play, sportsmanship, integrity, tenacity, and fitness. That millions of children worldwide look up to athletes is no surprise. The crux of the athlete-as-role-model argument is that when an athlete dopes, he cheats. Instead of hard work and determination, the athlete chooses an unfair and short cut. The whole morality of hard work is undermined when an athlete oversteps the rules. And if we expect our children to try their hardest, to achieve through hard work rather than short cuts, then these athletes are obvious candidates for scorn.
And shades of this win-at-all-costs attitude are already apparent in our schools: Some athlete dopers could probably take notes and sit in a classroom in any high school in America. Or a Harvard class for that matter. And, of course, not all athletes are angels. Off-field antics abound. Sex scandals. Political intrigue. Theft. Violence. Many times athletes are let off the hook for these indiscretions. Sometimes the allegations of doping are more seriously explored and remembered than allegations of other criminality.

Perhaps part of the doping scandal's resilience is that these other types of crime are hard to classify across the board, across the leagues, and across sports. There seems to be no link between being an athlete and being a rapist, murderer, thief, etc. Also, these other crimes are not integral to the sport. Doping, leading to critique number 2, undermines the player's record, his teams, and the sport as a whole.

With the advent of HD multi-angle sports coverage and instant replay, it's become a lot harder to cheat on the field. But before the game, in the off season, in the locker room with supplies from sophisticated medical facilities, it's much easier. So the logic goes that by doping, players gain an unfair advantage. This critique turns on the definition of unfair. Other than home field advantage, most sports attempt to have a level playing field. In football, for instance, teams switch directions throughout the game, hopefully nullifying any particular advantage from wind, sun, or before-game adjustments (like the length of a yard on the home side of the field).
But certain off-field advantages are allowed to stand without question. In fact, I'm willing to bet that the following may sound like absurd points to raise to some readers. For instance, the genetic inheritance of players who come from dynasty families. And the concomitant advantages bestowed upon would-be quarterbacks by famous quarterback fathers. Then there is the possible effects of poverty on not only nutrition but also on education and school resources in middle, high schools and the opportunity to graduate from high school and attend college, which is a de facto recruitment system in the NFL.

Another argument tied to critique 2 is that the rules expressly forbid doping and that settles that. But no one said the rules of sport must remain the same. If the problem is that the audience and refs cannot know which players are "real" and which are doped up, why not level the playing field in the other direction: Allow all currently illegal performance enhancing substances to be used by all athletes in the sport. Then let the players battle it out then, under a more fair, more transparent set of rules. And what of player health, you ask. I chose football as my test sport for a reason

And yet, despite an outcry from some commentators against football, the industry rolls on. And here we come to the third argument: in leagues where the players make millions of dollars, teams hundreds of millions, and leagues make billions, the idea of the dedicated athlete who does it for the love of the game, for his team, for the fans is in doubt. You can pick up on this in any of the major leagues. The stretched narratives. The cheesy commercials and retrospectives. The simplistic and often fawning coverage. The quest for local allegiance for pro teams that are essentially mercenary bands living off of public subsidy. For a cynic, these all point to an pro sports industry attempting to tug at the heart strings of tax payers and ticket buyers. And when these hometown and world-renowned warriors are outed for unsportsmanlike conduct, it threatens the American Pasttime (™) narrative.

But leaving aside cynicism, and looking toward critique 4, many would argue that these men (and women of course!) sometimes demonstrate the limits of the disciplined human body--and often demolish them. The contests are worth watching because between blaring commercial breaks and inane commentary, a certain breed of athlete in his prime, in his zone, sometimes stretches the bounds of belief on the field. Athletes, so the logic of critique 4 goes, show us the possibilities of the human and the transcendence of limits. But what happens when the athletes are something other than "human"?

This, I think, is the most interesting aspect of professional athletes and doping. Performance enhancing substances stretch the bounds of our definition of natural. And critique number 4 happens to align with the loss of the natural and fears of a transhumance future that crop up in our future-present time.
Next post, we'll explore critique 4 in depth.