The Only Good Reason to Ban Steroids in Baseball: To Prevent an Arms Race

A philosophy scholar investigates six dumb lines of logic—and one really compelling one—for opposing performance-enhancing drug use among MLB players.
AP / Kathy Willens

Major League Baseball is reportedly on the verge of the largest drug bust in sports history. Some 20 players, including Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, allegedly purchased performance‐enhancing drugs (PEDs) from BioGenesis, an "anti‐aging" clinic in Miami. The office of baseball's commissioner, Bud Selig, is considering suspending these players for up to 100 games.

Presupposed by this punishment and baseball's ban is the principle that using PEDs is wrong. As a philosophy professor, I can't help but ask: What makes these drugs so bad? Why is it wrong to use them? In spite of all the focus on the use of PEDs in sports, this simple question of ethics is harder to answer than it might seem. Below are six popular yet flawed reasons for rejecting PEDs--and a less-familiar seventh reason that explains what's really wrong with them.

Reason No. 1: Using PEDs is cheating.
A natural first suggestion is that using PEDs is wrong because it's cheating. In an article for Salon titled "A-Rod Isn't a Cheater," the philosopher Alva Noe questions whether it's cheating when "a whole generation of the best and most promising athletes has been doing it."

Of course, it is still cheating. Baseball banned steroids in 1991, so anyone who used them after that was breaking the rules--including A-Rod. Moreover, it is simply false that all good athletes use PEDs. Even at the height of baseball's steroids era, there were those who chose to play clean. Consider former Major Leaguer Doug Glanville, a personal friend who first inspired me to think about these issues. Although Doug had a successful career, playing in the Big Leagues for nine years and managing over 200 hits one season as the Phillies' center fielder, there is no doubt that he would have had more hits, a longer career, and a bigger paycheck if he had followed the lead of many of his peers and used PEDs. But as he documents in his book The Game From Where I Stand (and as his slim frame and modest power numbers would seem to confirm), Doug played drug-free. He was certainly not alone.

But as Plato would have recognized, the real problem with the cheating argument is that it's shallow. In the Socratic dialogue Euthyphro, Plato considers the question of whether an action is wrong because the gods disapprove of it, or whether the gods disapprove of an action because it is wrong. For example, is murder wrong because the gods disapprove of it? Or do the gods disapprove of murder because it is wrong? Most philosophers embrace the latter claim. After all, the gods aren't acting arbitrarily in disapproving of murder rather than, say, knitting. They must have a reason for disapproving of murder.

We should all agree that athletes who use outlawed PEDs are cheating. They are breaking the rules and giving themselves an unfair advantage. But Euthyphro shows that there is a deeper question: Why should PEDs be banned in the first place? Is there really a reason to prefer a sport that bans PEDs to one that allows them? Or is our preference merely arbitrary, like our preference for a game that encourages stretching and singing in the seventh inning rather than the sixth?

Reason No. 2: PEDs are unsafe.
If you told your mom you wanted to try PEDs, her first concern would probably be for your health. Relatively little is known about the long-term effects of drugs such as steroids because, as the Mayo Clinic notes, it's unethical to design studies to test for those effects. But it's unlikely that PEDs are as benign as calcium supplements.

It's not immediately clear, however, why this should count against their use. When it comes to sports, a certain amount of danger is part of the game. Boxers, soccer players, and football players suffer concussions, runners and basketball players blow out their knees, and tennis players injure their ankles and elbows. The first marathoner, Pheidippides, collapsed dead from the effort, and many since have suffered the same fate. We could rewrite the rules to significantly reduce these harms--marathons could be shortened, and the NFL could adopt the playground rules of "two-hand touch"--but we don't. We accept that sports can harm one's health. If PEDs were much more harmful than sports themselves, the argument could be made that they should be banned because they're especially unsafe. But there is little evidence to suggest that the side effects of PEDs are that bad. They're almost certainly no worse than repeated head traumas, and when used in moderation, certain PEDs may be no more dangerous than running marathons. Moreover, as medical research advances and PEDs evolve, the side effects of PEDs are likely to diminish.

Reason No. 3: PEDs reflect an obsession with perfection.
Some philosophers hold that an action is good or bad not because of its effects, but because of the reasons associated with it. If I shoot someone for sadistic pleasure, I've done something wrong; but if I shoot someone to prevent him or her from assassinating the president, I've acted heroically. So perhaps the problem with PEDs is that they are used for the wrong reasons.

Consider Lance Armstrong, who explained to Oprah Winfrey that his use of drugs stemmed from his "ruthless desire to win--to win at all costs." Or consider A-Rod, who used PEDs in the early 2000s "to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time."

There is clearly something disturbing about an obsession with perfection that drives us towards using illegal substances. But we don't always find it objectionable when people go to extraordinary means to reach the top. Cyclists who sleep in a hyperbaric chamber to boost their red blood cells are not invited to acknowledge their sins on Oprah's couch. Ballplayers who immerse themselves in their crafts for 90 hours a week are not tried in the court of public opinion for neglecting their families. We recognize that being the best requires a ruthless desire to win, and often admire that desire. Our disapproval of PEDs is surely more than a disapproval of the hyper-competitive spirit that motivates their use.

Reason No. 4: PEDs create inequalities.
Some have wanted to outlaw PEDs because they create new inequalities among athletes. They're expensive, and not everyone can afford them. This problem is particularly acute in international competitions such as the Olympics, where poorer countries struggle to provide their athletes with cutting-edge technologies and facilities. But even aspiring Major League players can't necessarily afford PEDs when the average contract for a first-year minor leaguer is only $850 per month.

Inequalities can't be the main problem with PEDs, however, since we could just as easily eliminate them by subsidizing PEDs as by banning them. Baseball clubs could hand them out with uniforms and lockers at the start of each season, and the International Olympic Committee could find pharmaceutical companies willing to sponsor athletes. Moreover, from the perspective of equality, a ban on PEDs may be counterproductive since only the wealthiest and best-connected athletes will have access to the most cutting‐edge methods for evading detection.

Reason No. 5: PED users don't deserve credit for their accomplishments.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant emphasized the importance of agency for morality and responsibility. A snowstorm can have bad or good effects--it can bring about traffic fatalities or a cuddly night by the fire--but it doesn't deserve credit or blame for what it does since it isn't an agent. By contrast, you can take credit for your athletic accomplishments, but only insofar as they are caused by you and not your PEDs. If you're only able to qualify for the Tour or hit 50 home runs because you have the latest and greatest drugs, then it's questionable whether you're really responsible for your achievements. It's not you who deserves praise for your athletic prowess, but your pharmacist.

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Jacob Beck is an assistant professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto.

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