From Lance Armstrong's grandstanding appearance on "Oprah" to the recent vote to deny Hall of Fame admission to steroid-tainted baseball star Barry Bonds, the subject of testing for performance-enhancing drugs is constantly in the news.
Doping scandals have become routine media fodder in almost all spectator sports, ranging from cycling to baseball to football to the Olympics. Unquestionably, professional sports are rife with athletes cheating to gain a competitive advantage.
Last year, the NFL took great pride in announcing the fact that it had issued 21 suspensions to athletes caught using banned substances, up 75% from 2011. But no one really believes that only 1% of the 1,700 super-sized jocks are using performance enhancing substances. If I were earning the average NFL salary of $1.9 million per year, I'd sure be tempted to look for a competitive edge to stay in the game.
The cheaters, like Armstrong, will always find ways to avoid getting caught, much like an alcoholic who favors vodka so his supervisor will be none the wiser. The "drug of choice" is a moving target. Ban steroids and athletes switch to growth hormones. Test for HGH, and the players move on to Adderall, and deer antler spray.
The issue is further muddied by the constant battle to identify what substances should be banned. While many studies have proven that caffeine is a performance enhancer, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has not banned it. Endurance athletes have long trained at altitude to gain an advantage in competition. WADA considered outlawing this technique, but declined to do so. Add to that a long list of unregulated herbs and supplements which many players take religiously, and you can begin to appreciate the herculean task faced by the regulators.
Testing is made even more problematic by the frequent using of masking drugs to avoid detection and the fact that savvy users carefully time their dose of the banned substance so all markers have cleared their system by the time of the testing.
Regulating what athletes put into their bodies and how they soothe their nerves is a losing battle, akin to passing a law prohibiting motorists from texting while driving. With so much money and reputation at stake, the decision to join the fray and take the miniscule risk of being fined or suspended is a no-brainer.
We have a tradition of treating players like children, even while we pay them millions of dollars for their skills, perhaps because they make their living competing in games we played as kids. It's time we view athletes who enter the professional ranks as adult workers, just like employees who toil away in office buildings.
Why not give up the pretense that there's any feasible way to police doping in sports and allow professional athletes to ingest and inject their favorite drugs and pursue any training regimen they wish? These elite athletes are already putting their bodies at risk just by routinely performing the extraordinary feats required by their sports. That's why they have notoriously short careers and retire with broken bodies. Those who choose to participate in physical competition for a living should be free to prepare their bodies for combat in whatever way they see fit.
The fact is that spectators enjoy watching players hit monster home runs, sprinters run like gazelles and football players make hard hits. Some will argue that ignoring drug use will ruin sports forever and that no "clean" player will be able to compete. But that's already the case; the only difference is that we would finally admit this truism.
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