Commentary: Are Performance-Enhancing Drugs Really So Wrong?

Close-up of a baseball pierced with a hypodermic needle

Commentary: Are Performance-Enhancing Drugs Really So Wrong?

Why Max Mehlman favors an open policy on the use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.

Published July 17, 2013

Max Mehlman remembers the 1998 summer of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, and that might help to explain why he favors an open policy on the use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.

Like most of us, Mehlman, 64, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, enjoyed the assault on the most sacred record in sports: the home run record in Major League Baseball. The tug-of-war over who would end up with that mark Sosa or McGwire was fueled, we would all learn later, by PEDs and steroids.

To some people, the fact that PEDs propelled Sosa and McGwire to heights no ballplayer had ever reached tainted what they had accomplished. Both men schemed the system, their critics claim; both men cheated cheated at the risk of destroying their bodies for personal glory.

Mehlman, author of The Price of Perfection: Individualism and Society in the Era of Biomedical Enhancement, would not agree on the latter point.

Unapologetic about his views, he says no evidence exists that PEDs and steroids are any more harmful than a drug like caffeine, which is legal. When used under a doctor’s supervision, his recommendation, PEDs and steroids have benefits even physicians don’t dispute.

Melhman calls the prohibition against their use arbitrary, just as he says the prohibition against marijuana has always been arbitrary. Where is the evidence of its harm? Why is smoking marijuana illegal and smoking cigarettes are not?

Still, he admits his position on PEDs in sports makes him an outlier.

Let’s face it, not everybody who has a public platform will step forward and say how senseless our public policy is in terms of limiting an athlete’s use of PEDs and steroids.

“The point is,” Mehlman says, “should they be illegal?”

The question is one those of us who worship at the altar of sports are unprepared to answer. Oh, we know the time-honored talk about how damaging steroids and their illegal sidekicks are to the integrity of the game. To get a chemical bump in strength and endurance is cheating, and those of us who value sportsmanship rail against cheats.

But “cheats,” to use a term the self-righteous among us use, are omnipresent. Just the other day American sprinter Tyson Gay, the man with the fastest time in the 100 meters this summer, acknowledged that a sample of his blood tested positive for a substance he’s not allowed to use.

Gay has offered no alibis — at least none that have hit the media. He has vowed to take whatever punishment a dirty blood test brings. But Gay will not be the last American athlete to run afoul of testing. In the wake of baseball’s recent investigations into a wellness clinic in South Florida, high profile stars like Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez and Nelson Cruz are in Commissioner Bud Selig’s crosshairs. Selig might pull the trigger any day now.

All of this PED stuff brings us back to Mehlman. He says who are we trying to kid when we pretend detection can stay apace of science. Cloning and genetic engineering are on the horizon, he says.

What are we willing to spend to detect their use? he asks. Mehlman makes a good point.

In the past decade, the language of sports has come to include testosterone precursors, hormone therapy, anti-aging regimes and DHEA. The names Victor Conte and Anthony Bosch have become as familiar to sports fans as some of the game’s stars, and during the “Steroids Era,” sports fans have witnessed some remarkable feats.

Who has been hurt? A sacred record?

Listen to Mehlman, and you will never hear the voice of a man on the precipice of lunacy. His, though, is a swing-for-the-fences perspective that reflects what many Americans believe but are reticent to say.

Explain the risks to an adult athlete, Mehlman says. But then let him decide if the price for glory is one he wishes to pay. To pay it demands training even beyond what the PEDs can deliver, he says.

More than anything else, Mehlman seems to be telling us to get back to enjoying the game and not get so stuck on what athletes do to prepare themselves to play our games at the ultimate level.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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(Photo: Mike Kemp/Getty Images)

Written by Justice B. Hill


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