Discussion about the dangers of football as it is currently played and the current, unprecedented levels of speed and strength in the game prompted my thoughts on the existence of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in football and other sports. How widespread is doping in major sports?
It used to be that doping was only something "bad guys" did. Ben Johnson. East Germans. Crazy European cyclists. For years I thought that PEDs were a dirty trick that only bad guys would indulge in--my favorite athletes and teams were all good guys and thus ethically incapable of such moral transgression.
However, Western sports are not immune to performance-enhancing drug use; see baseball, for example. When Jose Canseco threw syringes at every significant baseball player of the 90s I piled on baseball as a sport and arrogantly checked off a box on my list of reasons why football is superior to other sports. After all, the NFL tests for drugs!
I was being naive. In truth, I already knew better: The BALCO scandal shockingly revealed that the most sophisticated PEDs were invisible to contemporary tests. An athlete could dope wihout any limitation and never test positive. This inherent flaw in drug testing was and is a big deal; the most determined dopers are capable of defeating whatever tests are in place.
Lance Armstrong never tested positive. He won 7 Tours de France in a row, an unmatched record in cycling. I actively rooted him on, roping me into the small world of cycling fandom. Interesting fact you might not have known: virtually every cyclist that he shared a podium with from 1999-2006 was linked with doping (the lone exception was Fernando Escartin, placing third in 1999). That means that Lance beat riders that were actively cheating every year. Either he was also enhancing his performance... or it is the greatest athletic feat of all time.
I liked Lance. Accepting the possibility that he may have cheated was a difficult conclusion for me to draw. And that led me to an important conclusion about us as sports fans: We do not recognize the breadth of PED use in sports because we are asking the wrong question.
When we consider the possibility of PED use, what we want to do is ask ourselves whether or not we think someone would use it. We ask this about our favorite athletes: Would Steve Yzerman dope? Of course not! He's such a great guy. (This is still my actual position). We ask that about other athletes, too; people generally think Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. managed to get through the steroid era without juicing, and there may be good reason for that. However, I think this belief is at least partly held because people think highly of Jeter and Griffey as individuals.
That is part of the reason that so many people find it so easy to accept that Barry Bonds juiced at the end of his career: we don't like him. Sure, Goodyear recruited his head to join their blimp fleet, but he's a jerk, a villain; of course he'll dope.
But this is the wrong question. We take an incomplete understanding of the character of an athlete and, based on our conclusion of their behavior, make a wider judgment about the status of sports as a whole. "Barry Sanders wouldn't dope, therefore doping isn't a big deal in football, probably just a few bad apples."
But we don't understand the character of most athletes. In truth, a successful athlete is almost certainly driven by a level of competitiveness most of us will never comprehend. The drive to win, to succeed, to prove oneself to detractors, to get better, to achieve, is remarkable. That's what compels Kobe Bryant to spend hours in the gym before and after practice perfecting his shot. That's what compels Peyton Manning to spend hours and hours each week studying film--in the offseason. Victory. Success. Winning.
And individuals who seek to win will, often, go to any length available to succeed. Slightly late hits after the whistle. A whack at the hands at the base of a jump shot. A stick in the shins when the ref looks the other way. A rub of a dirty hand before a pitch.
PEDs can increase strength. They can increase speed. They can increase endurance (cyclists don't use anabolic steroids, but directly alter their blood chemistry to increase their cardiovascular efficiency to astonishing levels). What are sports if not tests for speed, strength, and endurance? PEDs can give a soccer player the endurance to win a corner in the 87th minute, a baseball player the extra length on a fly ball to hit a home run, or a running back the extra kick to make it to the second level. A basketball player gets extra height on their way to the basket, a hockey player recovers quicker for the next playoff game, a swimmer has the extra wattage to win at the wall.
If you want to know if there are PEDs in use in a sport, just figure out if their is a tangible benefit to them. Football, a game of speed and power, clearly benefits from PEDs. Baseball, where power hitting and power pitching are million-dollar attributes, also benefits. Cycling, swimming, distance running, soccer, and even tennis are sports where endurance can make the difference between winning and losing; they benefit. Basketball? Strength and particularly speed. Hockey? Strength and speed.
"But wait," you say. "Nobody in the NBA/NHL/EPL has tested positive." There are drugs known to beat tests, and sophisticated doping programs are brilliant at evading detection. If a sport has not had any positive tests, that doesn't mean nobody is doing it. In my opinion, that means a lot of people are doing it, and nobody has been caught.
I've settled on a principle for determining whether or not I think there is doping in a sport. The PED principle. I use it for my own opinion only, as much for a protection against future disappointment as anything else. It allows me to appreciate a sport, recognize the potential problems, and enjoy the athletes or teams I like without having to worry myself asking "Is so-and-so doping?"
The PED principle is this:
If there is a benefit to PEDs in a sport, athletes will use them. Unless the risk of consequences outweighs the benefits, many will do it. If I hold it against one sport, I must hold it against all of them... or none of them.