Op-Ed: Just Another Rule

August 9, 2013

By Ishan Dasgupta

Alex Rodriguez, PEDs, and why we need to rethink doping in sport.

Some rules in baseball have changed over time to adapt to modern technology and the changing perspectives of its stakeholders—fans, players, ownership, and management. In 1925, pitchers were first allowed to use a resin bag. In 1959, regulations were set up for minimum boundaries for all new parks at 325-400-325 feet for left, center, and right fields respectively. In 1975, the baseballs were allowed to be covered with cowhide because of a shortage of horses. In 2008, limited use of instant replay was allowed to judge fair/foul and homerun calls.

Other rules have stayed the same from the inception of the game—a ball hit over the fence in the outfield, between the foul posts, is a homerun. A homerun will probably always be a homerun.

Rules in sport are often arbitrary, adaptable, debatable, debated and ultimately changeable. The rule banning the use of specific performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is one of the rules of baseball.

All players who play at any professional level and are subject to the collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners of baseball teams are aware of this rule and are contractually bound to face specific consequences if they are caught violating the rule.

If Alex Rodriguez hits a ball to deep left field and it caroms off the foul post it is a homerun, because those are the agreed upon rules of baseball. We can break out the video, since we have a rule for that now, to check that it did in fact hit the post, but at the end of the day there is nothing to debate.

Why is it then when Alex Rodriguez is caught using PEDs, we have a hard time simply dismissing it as just another violation of a rule? The answer is complicated, but I don’t think it needs to be. We just need to figure out if the rule banning certain PEDs in sport is a rule like the one that governs the type of dead animal that covers a baseball core, or if it is a rule like the one that defines a homerun.

The ethics of enhancement technologies

At least some of the difficulty we have with approaching PEDs in sport is related to our ethical intuitions about whether we think enhancement has any place in our society. To inadequately paraphrase bioethicist Erik Parens, there are two types of people in this world—those who think we have an obligation to creatively enhance our bodies to achieve our life goals, and those who believe our life goals should be molded by the hand we have been dealt in the genetic lottery.

Parens claims that moral confusion regarding enhancement, and I think this applies to PEDs in sport, arises from this fundamental definitional disagreement about what tools are fair when approaching “the good life.” We have different foundational beliefs that cause us to talk past each other rather than engage in useful debate.

Similarly, you will find varying opinions among players and fans about whether or not PEDs should be allowed in sport. There are good academic arguments in the bioethics literature for allowing PEDs in sport. There are good academic arguments in the bioethics literature for banning PEDs in sport.

The point here is that this argument is unlikely to be resolved soon, but that should not preclude us from reaching an agreement about the practical nature of baseball.

We can have different intuitions about the role of enhancement in our personal lives and in a democratic libertarian society we can act upon those intuitions to different degrees. Baseball, however, is not a democratic libertarian society. It is a sport defined by arbitrary rules based more on how one thinks the game should be played, and less on how one thinks life should be lived.

Rules in baseball are not moral rules, and we should not try to make them as such. Part of our confusion when we deal with situations like the recent Biogenesis scandal is that we try to forcibly apply our ethical beliefs to a game that is otherwise operated under non-value laden regulations.

PEDs, safety, and stigmatization

If there is an issue concerning PEDs in sport that has strong bioethical implications it is the potential for them to cause serious harm to its users and to those who may be tempted to use the drugs non-professionally, especially adolescents attempting to emulate their role models.

There is some evidence to suggest that much of the fear regarding safety of PEDs are a social construction and that when administered responsibly to adults these so called dangerous substances are actually fairly safe and effective. Of course there is also substantial evidence that outlines the deleterious side effects of anabolic steroid use with particularly negative consequences for users who are young and still developing physically.

So, one must ask whether an adult should have the right to take on some risk of personal bodily harm in exchange for the benefit of fame, riches and glory?

Certainly, as a society, we allow consenting adults to take on some health risks for the benefit of society in clinical research. We also allow young men to take on major short-term and long-term health risks to play college football (without direct salary compensation) for the possible benefit of making it to the NFL and potentially an education.

Would allowing baseball players to use anabolic steroids within medically approved limits be an unreasonable health risk if we consider the inherent physical risks of the sport itself or the risks we allow people to take on in other areas of society?

This is of course assuming the PED in question is legal, is evaluated by appropriate authorities to ensure sufficient safety, and is administered by team approved physicians in accordance with strict regulations that ban other PEDs which are not legal or deemed unsafe.

The issue of young athletes being more tempted to use PEDs if they were allowed for professionals would still remain. But is it sufficient to warrant a general prohibition? With appropriate regulations in place, it is reasonable to think we can allow use among adult professional athletes while still managing our duty to safeguard against improper use.

Take the US law that prohibits individuals under the age of 21 from consuming alcohol. We allow adults to drink, despite knowing that it is likely to tempt children to consume alcohol, because we believe that regulations and efforts to manage use among children will be sufficient. We have not come to the conclusion that the only solution to stop underage drinking is to prohibit everyone from consuming alcohol. Similarly, if we allowed PEDs in baseball, increased risks to kids from taking PEDs should be manageable.

There will always be young people who ignore the advice of their parents and society and inflict unwarranted health risks upon themselves, but it is not the responsibility of baseball to raise good children. In any case, a game based on arbitrary rules and established for recreation is unlikely to be a particularly good parent, and should not be expected to be one.

Undoubtedly, there are many teens who tune into AMC’s Mad Men while creating homemade Old-Fashioneds with stolen bourbon from their parent’s liquor cabinets, but we are not morally distraught over the fact that Jon Hamm might somehow be responsible for creating a generation of Don Drapers.

Stakeholders, leadership, and consistency

Whether one believes PEDs should be allowed in baseball or not, it is important to understand the views of baseball’s stakeholders.

In preparation for this article, I spent a few hours looking for good data on what fans really think about the use of PEDs. I found nothing recent outside of scattered polls that asked about peripheral questions like what type of punishment is acceptable (1, 2, 3).  The data I did find about what players and fans think about the acceptability of PED use and testing in baseball is a decade old, but do suggest both players and fans want testing.

Still, one could make the argument that at least a large minority does not care. Growing up during the “first steroid era” I certainly was aware that something fishy was going on, but, boy was it fun to see Bonds hit those balls into McCovey Cove.

I think a large part of the confusion we face about PEDs could be alleviated if we had good data to show what stakeholders actually think. Again, this should go beyond just the fans, and include players and owners. Player and owner perspectives might help us understand unique perceptions that are often shaped by different motivations.

If we find that the majority of baseball’s stakeholders are amenable to legalizing PED use, we should change the rules of baseball to allow it. If we find that it is something people feel deeply violates the spirit of the sport we have every reason to maintain the current ban and enforce it.

More importantly, the leadership in baseball needs to be held accountable for other stakeholders’ wishes without making unilateral decisions willy-nilly. Bud Selig sat around watching baseball become overtaken by steroids in the late 90s and early 2000s without any complaints.

Then this past Monday, he instituted an unprecedented 212 game ban for Alex Rodriguez even though the collective-bargaining agreement has a penalty schedule of 50 games, 100 games, lifetime ban for first, second, and third violations of their joint drug agreement.

Justifying an additional 112 games under ‘conduct detrimental to Major League Baseball’ is also suspect since there is no precedent for this sort of ban except for the case of Pete Rose who was banned for life for gambling.

Gambling on games is not the same as lying about taking steroids. Gambling in games you are directly involved with can have a much bigger impact on the outcome than an incremental gain in physical ability of one player. Match fixing, for example, is a much more fundamental violation of the rules and spirit of sport than taking enhancements to improve an individual’s game.

Plus, it can be debated whether steroid use even makes that much of a difference in baseball. Eric Walker provides a comprehensive analysis of how steroid use has changed baseball, and while the data suggests it certainly has made the game different it does not lead us to think that taking A-Rod’s teammate Derek Jeter and pumping him full of steroids would turn him into a homerun king. Similarly, widespread use of PEDs (which we know happened in the late 90s and early 2000s) does not have the potential to change the outcomes of games as much as say a match-fixing ring would.

Bud Selig and future commissioners need to be consistent in their regulation of baseball without scapegoating big names in an attempt to scare people from using PEDs. This approach not only fails as a deterrent of unapproved PED use (keeping McGuire, Sosa, et. al. from the Hall of Fame did not stop the current string of violations from happening), but also undermines the leadership’s credibility.

If the use of PEDs is something baseball’s stakeholders truly do not want, Selig and MLB leadership need to have better testing policies, consistent enforcement, and an avoidance of the practice of shaming big names.

A recent article points out the pitfalls of testing and why it is so difficult to catch doping athletes. It states that the pace at which athletes will find new PEDs to use will always outrun the pace at which regulatory bodies develop testing methods and rules to deal with those drugs. It is similar to the issue of designer drugs in that regulation becomes more of an arms race than a simple matter of testing and punishment. That being said an organization with considerable resources such as Major League Baseball has the power to improve testing methods should that be the wish of baseball’s stakeholders.

Just another rule

Viewing the rule banning the use of certain PEDs in baseball as just another rule can help us avoid some of the confusion that has plagued debates on this topic for the last two decades.

It can allow us to look at the rule as something that is not inherently moral, remove the stigmatization around appropriate use among adults, and gauge stakeholder perspectives that allow consistent implementation and regulation of PEDs.

It does not matter whether you think PEDs are ethically right or wrong to use in sport. It only matters whether you think the ban on using PEDs in baseball is like a rule saying what kind of dead animal can cover a baseball core, or like a rule that defines what a home run is.  Some rules can be adapted to reflect changing times, while other rules are more likely to remain unchanged as we feel something about the very game itself would be lost if it was omitted.

If enough people think that it is like the former, perhaps it is time to change the rules of baseball. If enough people think the latter, it is time to be consistent in how we deal with violators of the rules.

~ Ishan Dasgupta, B.A., is a research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He is interested in the enhancement of human (and animal) traits and the implications this has for society

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