Why Are We Against Doping? (Part I)

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Like many of you, I recently watched the excellent ESPN documentary on Lance Armstrong. Even if you are familiar with the story, it’s a well put-together and compelling documentary, well worth the watch. In discussing the film with family and friends, we inevitably would drill down to the heart of the matter: what exactly is wrong with doping? Most sports fans are anti-doping, but why? We seldom dig deep and try to unpack this belief, so I’ll do my best to do just that, with some efficiency. Before getting started, I’ll note that there is a ton of great academic writing on the ethical issues surrounding doping. My take here draws on a lot of this material, but especially the work of the late Robert Simon, whose book Fair Play has been a mainstay in my ethics courses.

So let’s start with the easy argument: doping is cheating and cheating harms sport. This one is pretty straightforward, but it might require a definition of cheating. Let’s go with the philosopher Bernard Gert, who offers this: cheating is best identified with the intentional violation of a public system of rules to secure the goals of that system for oneself or for those for whom one is concerned. The intent and the “public system of rules” are critical here. If athletes acknowledge a set rules saying that they won’t dope, and then they do, they are cheaters. For many folks, case closed.

But this analysis of cheating doesn’t get us any closer to resolving specific concerns about doping. So now let’s look at five of the most common, mainstream arguments against doping. They aren’t the only ones, but they are the biggies. And they seem to fall apart pretty quickly when put through the ethical/logical ringer.

  1. Doping is not natural. This one gets quickly exhausting. Where do we draw the “natural” line? We’re ok with Advil, protein powder, and LASIK surgery, none of which are particularly natural. The list could go on: hyperbaric chambers, preemptive surgery, vitamin pills, etc. Trying to draw the “natural” line is futile; we could reasonably argue that human growth hormone is, in fact, natural.

  2. Doping harms the athlete. Some doping regimens certainly do, but is that a fair concern? Some sports harm the athlete by design: we are ok with boxers getting punched in the head and the health risks of football, but not ok with the risk of doping? Even if we look at non-violent sports, it is far from clear that we don’t endorse practices that are “unhealthy”: the weight training, conditioning, and dietary regimens of elite athletes go far beyond what is required for healthy living; some of these regimens carry their own risks. There’s also the element of paternalism: do we have the right to tell free-thinking, adult athletes what risks they can or cannot take? “You may push yourself to unhealthy extremes training for a sport and that sport itself may cause devastating, life-long injuries, but you may not take these substances, because they may hurt you.” The argument feels flat when we express it that way.

  3. Doping creates an un-level playing field. This is likely true, but do we actually want the level playing field, or is it a foundational myth of sport that we buy into? For most fans, there are exactly 2 teams whom we want to see win: our own team, and if they aren’t playing, the underdog. The underdog narrative, arguably one of the very best parts of sport, is so compelling because the playing field isn’t level. We LOVE seeing a cash-strapped soccer team upset Manchester City or PSG, just as we love when the disadvantaged high school team triumphs over a rich school. Furthermore, we don’t exactly try to level playing field in non-doping terms: we don’t expect the rich high school to subsidize their poor opponent, we don’t put limits on how much a team or athlete can train based on their opposition’s resources, we don’t give sprinters a head start against Usain Bolt.

  4. Doping is coercive; when an athlete dopes, he forces other athletes do the same. This one is pretty compelling and explains why many of us can sympathize with athletes who dope, our thinking usually goes like this: if I had to break the rules to stay competitive in my livelihood, especially if other people are breaking the rules, I’d probably do the same. But understanding the motivation the dope isn’t the same as a logical justification. And words must mean something: coercion requires…well, coercion. And it’s unclear that the pressure to dope is the same as being forcibly coerced into doing so. We still have free will and agency, thus ultimately the final choice in whether or not we dope. Even if choosing the ethically sound route hurts our career, we have the choice. To be clear, we must distinguish true coercion from a general sense of pressure: the East German female swimmers of the 1970s/80s were coerced, fed steroids by their team doctors as part of their “vitamins.” This was a human rights violation. These athletes did not have a choice and we must consider them differently than the athlete who felt that they did not have a choice.

  5. Doping athletes may influence kids to dope. They certainly might and this is not desirable. But is this sufficient reason to ban doping? Parents who smoke and drink may influence their kids to smoke or drink; many of us celebrate musicians and artists who openly use drugs, without concern about their influence on youth.

So where does this leave us (for now)? You may find some of my counter-arguments more convincing then others. However, taken one by one, each of the five traditional arguments against doping begin to weaken under the pressure of ethical/logical consistency and scrutiny. One possible way out of this is to take a utilitarian approach: while no single argument may be wholly compelling, when combined they add up to a holistically compelling anti-doping position, where the positives of anti-doping policy and ideology outweigh the negatives. Indeed, this seems to largely be the basis for our current state of anti-doping affairs. Of course, there is also the obvious economic motivation for organizations to prohibit doping, if only for the incumbent implications for marketing and public relations. Organizations want to keep sports clean because fans prefer a sports world that is clean (or at least says it is, or tries to be). This may come across as a less-than-altruistic motive, but that doesn’t undermine the utilitarian perspective, assuming that the result is a sports world that produces net pleasure for the greatest number of people.

In part 2 of this post, I return to the idea of cheating, explore the pro-doping perspective, and attempt to resolve this mess a bit more.

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