Monday, July 23, 2012

We should not accept PEDs in competitive sports

In the IQ Squared debate on doping ("We should accept performance-enhancing drugs in competitive sports."), the side arguing for the motion swung the most votes. Before the debate, 18% of the audience voted for the motion, 63% against, and 19% undecided; after the debate, 37% voted for (up 19 points), 59% against (down 4 points), and 4% undecided.

Though I believe doping ought to be banned, the debate's results don't surprise me. Rarely do I hear a good argument being made against doping. During the debate, I heard none. But the side arguing for the motion made some good points—points good enough to capture the imaginations of most undecided audience members.

Not just in the IQ Squared debate but in doping debates in general, anti-doping proponents tend to argue for some form of athlete paternalism: that doping harms athletes and that athletes need protection. Though the intentions behind this argument are good, the argument is terrible for the purpose of persuasion. First, the arguer has an uphill battle defending the claim that doping does harm. Though it's obvious that some forms of doping are harmful, doping proponents will agree that those extreme uses of PEDs should be disallowed. What's left are the non-extreme uses that are either harmless or low-risk. Why not allow those?

But even if an anti-doping proponent can persuade listeners that doping is dangerous for athletes, then there's still the matter of convincing listeners that it's not the athlete's right to take the risk anyway. This is an even harder sell. We glorify athletes in their prime—so long as they continue winning—but we're quick to forget them once they're used up. No matter whether a retired athlete suffers from financial problems or permanent, debilitating injury or depression or brain damage or doping-related health problems, Americans aren't likely to care enough to help. They made their millions, we might say. They took the risks, and now they must live with the consequences. It's not that sports fans are callous; it's just that we care more about active athletes than retired athletes. So arguing against doping on the basis of long-term harmful effects on retired athletes is a bad way to persuade.

Another umbrella of bad arguments against doping is that doping is unfair. This usually refers to how drugs aren't fairly distributed, or that some athletes benefit more from taking the same PED than do other athletes, or that athletes who choose to abstain from PEDs for moral reasons will be made less competitive, and so on. These are all terrible arguments. Their common weakness is their arbitrariness: sports competition is inherently unfair, starting with the different genes and maternal determinants a future athlete is born with, continuing with the different environmental factors and financial resources they grow up with and train under, and including the different technologies they compete with. What's a little more unfairness by allowing doping? doping proponents will ask. Why ban a PED but not a super-slippery swimsuit or a faster bicycle? These are hard questions for the anti-doping proponent to answer in a way that persuades the listener.

But Craig, you say, if these are all bad reasons for banning doping, why do you oppose doping?

I'm glad you asked.

I think doping ought to be banned because doping makes sports less fun to watch. This is nothing but a selfish opinion of a fan. If doping made sports more fun to watch then I would support doping. (Hey, those athletes make millions, you know.) But as it is, doping makes athletes less human, and for me, less interesting.

This has become clearer during the last couple years as I've kept track of pro cycling. In that time, the pro peloton has begun looking a lot more human. Speeds are more modest, yet guys are popping off the back of the group anyway, and at the summits they look like they're hurting. This is a long ways from the Tour in 2006, when Floyd Landis broke away solo for 120 kilometers on a mountain stage and beat the field by over five minutes and looked as fresh at the finish as at the beginning. For all the achievement of turning over the cranks faster and harder, why not put a robot on a bike instead? No, I like to see that even the pros feel pain and have limits—like us other mortals.

But my argument against doping isn't a persuasive one, either. It's entirely subjective, and I suspect that a lot of fans disagree with me to boot. To them, bigger, faster and stronger are always better. More home runs makes for better sport.

So I realize the lameness of my own argument and as such, you'll never catch me formally arguing against doping. I promise.

(I reserve the right to revoke that promise.)


Bobby and the Presidents said...

We could also consider bifurcation, whereupon there are two separate competitions -- one allowing PED's and one banning them. I believe this is done in body building. Or, alternately, perhaps each sport should be looked at separately to determine if the suffering/real aspect is appreciated enough to ban substances that negate such suffering/realism and if so, then ban PED's, but if for instance with Javalin throwing, then allow it in an effort to amaze us that much more! As you may be able to tell, I too fail to be fully convinced either for or against PED's, which means I probably shouldn't even post this comment, but, well, I felt like doing so.

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

Bobby et al.— The have-two-leagues idea is one I've heard before. It's interesting to think how freakish athletes would become if they could freely dope as much as bodybuilders.