Monday, June 10, 2013

Cheating at Sports

Another widespread scandal in professional sports involving Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED's) is filling up the headlines again. Once again,  the suspects have been labeled as "cheaters" and vilified by the media. But, I'm not on board with all this finger-pointing, and I'll tell you why.

The popular belief is that if only everyone would just NOT use PED's, sporting events would consist of evenly matched competitors, pitted against one another in an open and fair competition based on athletic skill. This is a nice, idealistic premise, but it is overly generalized and simplistic. It is rooted in the idea that all players begin with the same abilities, and if or when a player gains a perceived advantage through the use of pharmaceutical enhancements, they are able to outperform their opponents and ultimately win by this specific advantage. The truth of the matter is that in the absence of PED's, not all players have the same innate talents. Some people are faster than others; some are taller; some are stronger; and so on.

This strikes at the heart of the American myth that hard work is what leads to success and/or victory, and perhaps that is why it is such a controversial issue. While it is true that athletic champions work incredibly hard for their accomplishments, it is not necessarily true that they work harder than their less-than-champion counterparts. Teammates who run the same drills at the same team practices possess dramatic skill disparities between one another.

If you watch sports and think to yourself, "Wow, if I just ran a lot, lifted a lot of weights, and practiced basketball drills for the last twenty years, I would be as good as ____". Think back to grade school physical education. Some kids were naturally faster; some were taller; some were stronger; and so on. In the sense of 'fairness' that all players start with the same toolkit and their outcomes were based solely on work ethic, it was never 'fair' or 'equal' from the beginning.

So, is it unfair for a 40-year old baseball player to use PED's that give him an even playing field with a fresh 20-year old competitor? If not, then why not? Furthermore, because it has not been proven that the losers/victims/opponents/teammates are in fact innocent of the same accusations, then prosecuting "cheaters" for their use of PED's is unfair, imbalanced, and absurd.


If we entertain the fantastical notion that all players begin equally, then the only way to achieve fairness is to allow all players to use PED's so that "cheaters" cannot gain an advantages over "non-cheaters" by using drugs in secret. However, if it is true that players do not have an equal foundation of athletic abilities, then we must acknowledge that sports were never 'fair' or 'equal' from the start, and allowing specific disadvantaged players to use PED's could effectively equalize players' strengths in some respects, and "level the playing field".

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