Why Are We Against Doping? (Part II)

Photo by Christina Victoria Craft on Unsplash

Part I of this post can be found here.

To summarize part I of this post, there are five traditional, consensus arguments against doping: it’s not natural, it harms the athlete, it creates an un-level playing field, it is coercive, and it may influence kids to dope. (Of course, these aren’t the only arguments, but they are the biggies.) Each argument can be undermined and fairly challenged, but it seems fair to say that the rationale for our current anti-doping approach comes from a holistic, utilitarian acceptance that the total negatives presented in the traditional arguments outweigh the positives. But is this a good enough basis to be against doping? I’ll return to this in a moment.

But first, can we entertain any arguments in favor of doping? As with arguments against, there are several, but I’ll limit myself to two.

The Cases For Doping

  1. Doping is a technological advancement, in service of pushing the limits of human potential. We seem to be pretty OK with the use of technology in sports performance. When we hear the term “technology,” we tend to think of cutting-edge machines, of computers, iPhones, and the like. But that’s a pretty limited view. Let’s instead take philosopher Sigmund Loland’s definition, that technology refers to any “human-made means to reach human interests and goals.” Under this umbrella, Loland suggests that even bodily techniques may be rightfully considered as technological advances. Say, for example, the flip-turn in swimming, or more famously, the Fosbury Flop in the high jump.

    Moving away from bodily techniques, it doesn’t take long to grasp the breadth of acceptable technological advancement in sport. Nutritional supplements, medical procedures (e.g., LASIK, preemptive Tommy John surgery), hyperbaric chambers, all manner of wearable physiological tracking and measurement devices, and the massive category of the tools we use to play the games themselves: from cutting edge running shoes and golf clubs to sticky football gloves and compression wear, and all points in between and beyond.

    Most of us are OK with all of these things. We don’t expect the modern athlete to wear glasses in lieu of LASIK, nor do we expect them to play basketball in Chuck Taylors when Nike has invested the GDP of many a small nation in crafting the best basketball shoe possible. Hardcore traditionalists may disagree, but it’s hard to argue that most of these advances haven’t made sports better. If not better, they have certainly made sports a realm where we can enjoy the flow of human progress: is there any tennis fan who longs for the day of a heavier racquet that made the one-handed backhand all but impossible for most players?

    I trust that you see where this all lands. Those who make the doping-as-technology argument feel that we’re being arbitrary with the limits we are placing on technological advancement in service of human potential. Their basic argument is along the lines of, “I can alter my body through surgery or a training program generated by artificial intelligence, but I can’t alter it pharmaceutically. What gives?”

    It’s a compelling case, but not a perfect one. Counter arguments to this hinge on one of two approaches. First, we DO limit technology in sports. A football glove that is too sticky, a hockey stick that is too curved, or a basketball shoe with a spring-loaded mechanism: none of those things are allowed. There are regulations governing golf balls and bathing suits, so there can be regulations governing performance enhancing drugs. The second approach circles back to the original five anti-doping arguments, in an attempt to show that non-doping technologies don’t raise the same concerns as doping: it’s hard to say that wearing a $300 soccer boot hurts children, harms the athlete, or un-levels the playing field. There is merit in both counter-arguments, but the former is a bit more convincing.
  2. Doping is bad, but doping control– as we know it — sucks. What’s wrong with current anti-doping policy and practice? Critics might fairly make some of the following arguments: it is corrupt, biased, violates rights to privacy, disproportionately punishes poorer athletes and countries, forces athletes to engage in risky underground economies and medical practices, and, perhaps most importantly, doesn’t seem to work that well. After all, we’ve had some five decades of doping control and there is still plenty of doping. For a much more in-depth and elegant articulation of this position, I defer to Patrick Hruby’s takedown of anti-doping, “The Drugs Won: The Case for Ending the Sports War on Doping.” A very thorough and essential read if you’re interested in the subject.

Back Where Started

What a mess we’re in. The traditional arguments may not be wholly convincing, but neither is the doping-as-technology argument. As for the anti-doping-sucks position, just because the system is poor does not seem to be enough justification to abandon the system completely, perhaps reform is possible (and necessary).

So where does that leave us? It seems that when all is said and done, the best argument against doping in sport is the simplest one: cheating is bad for sport, doping is cheating, and therefore bad. In part I, I included Gerts’ definition of cheating: 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.

Did I really need a lengthy, two-part post to arrive at this conclusion? I think yes. Because as simple as the doping=cheating argument is, it actually rests on top of the beautifully complex system of human interaction and coordination that makes sport amazing. Gerts’ “public system of rules” is at the heart of sport: to play the game means to accept the rules (even if we don’t like them), to win the game means to have done so within the rules (sorry, Astros fans). This borders on the obvious, but also inverts one of our core assumptions of sport, that it is a purely competitive domain. Of course, there is no sport without competition, but it is a competition unlike those we see in nature or business, it is a competition rooted firmly in human collaboration, what the aforementioned Robert Simon dubbed “the mutual quest for excellence through challenge.”

When I step on the court, I accept a set of conditions and you do too; any value that emerges from our competitive endeavor does so because we have agreed to respect a set of terms that we believe produces a meaningful result. I could pick up the golf ball with my hand and drop it in the cup, but I doubt you’re giving me the hole-in-one or will even accept that I am golfing. Some of our rules make the games more inefficient (and therefore novel and interesting), some of them make things as fair as possible. And this is something I find truly amazing. That we humans, who can’t agree on politics or where to get dinner, can establish a set of constraints and a goal, then set about trying to conquer each other while paying deep respect to the agreed upon terms. Better to not-cheat and lose than to cheat and win, for can we really win if we have cheated? I’m usually not one to over-romanticize sports, but if we can coordinate our efforts in this domain, it gives me hope that we can continue to seek meaningful coordination in other walks of life.

Thus, despite our misgivings over our anti-doping rationale, as long as we believe there is good reason to keep doping against the rules, that should be enough reason not to dope and to punish athletes who do. To argue otherwise is to undermine the power of human cooperation, free will, and agency.

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