“Drugs. Drugs. Drugs. Which are good? Which are bad?”

The melody and lyrics of the vintage public service announcement still resonate, but not because of a nostalgic lesson learned. It’s ironic detachment that fuels our memory. We’re taught from an early age that some drugs are good, and some drugs are bad. However, as we get older, we learn that nothing is truly as black and white as we’re initially led to believe.

This is a lesson gone unlearned by professional sports that still prefer to exist in a sort of Neverland, remaining aloft in ideals that ultimately prove childish. The issue of drugs in sports, as in all walks of life, requires nuance, but the major professional sports leagues insist on handling it with definition that doesn’t actually exist.

No greater example of this can be found than in the recent voter approval for possession of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. Despite the evidence of social progress that the vote represents, imagining that the results would change the rules for professional sports in those states is, pardon the expression, a pipe dream.

Of course, there are obstacles in place to hinder people in Colorado and Washington from immediately using marijuana. Under federal law, cannabis remains illegal. As Colorado governor John Hickenlooper warned his constituents, “Don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”

Even if marijuana was completely lawful at a municipal, state and federal level, the legalization would prove ultimately unimportant to inspiring a change of the policies of professional sports. Public perception is a far more convincing force, as proven by the fact that marijuana wouldn’t be the first perfectly legal drug to be banned for use by professional athletes.

Every day, doctors across North America prescribe anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and several other medications banned by Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and the National Hockey League. So many completely legal over-the-counter supplements contain banned substances that most leagues supply athletes with a list of products that are safe for purchase as a means of avoiding unintentionally using prohibited elements.

Most of these are commonly referred to as performance enhancing drugs, even though there’s a lack of evidence to suggest that a substance like HGH would directly improve a major professional athlete’s performance. At least no more than what Major League Baseball refers to drugs of abuse or what the National Football League calls illicit drugs. These prohibited substances include cannabis, cocaine, LSD and MDMA among others.

The different leagues would argue that banning both performance enhancers and drugs that are typically associated with addiction is a matter of protecting the health of the athletes competing under their umbrella. We’ve seen examples of unchecked abuse in the past, and it’s not pretty: the L.A. Raiders of the early eighties, several East German Olympians and even the recent slew of chemically dependent NHL enforcers whose depression was believed to be at the root of their suicides and overdoses.

However, as I expressed in the opening paragraphs of this piece, overarching policies are not a good fit for issues demanding nuance. There are several athletes who have used banned substances in a controlled manner to improve their health and extend their careers.

Consider beloved New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, still pitching at the age of 40. On separate occasions in 2002 and 2004, Pettitte received multiple HGH injections as a means of recovering from an elbow injury faster. Similarly, 39-year-old pitcher Bartolo Colon returned to baseball in 2011, after a two-year absence during which the right-hander underwent an experimental medical procedure involving stem cells. When word leaked that the procedure is usually coupled with controlled doses of HGH, Colon’s revitalization came under fire. A year later, the pitcher tested positive for synthetic testosterone and was banned for 50 games.

However, there’s no evidence to suggest that either pitcher was abusing their body with the use of a banned substance. Instead, it’s quite likely that their bodies would be incapable of pitching at all without the use of medical advancements that are legally available to non-athletes when prescribed by a doctor. In this case the substances banned as health risks are being used to maintain the very thing that they’re supposed to be diminishing.

Further negating the defense that sports leagues are banning substances out of concern for the health of athletes is the actual damage caused by substances that wouldn’t even be considered for prohibition. Just this season, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton joined fellow baseball players Johnny Damon and Brian McCann in being diagnosed with ocular keratitis, a drying of the cornea caused by too much caffeine, the result of drinking one too many energy drinks, which contain nothing but legal substances according to MLB.

The suspected reason for Hamilton’s elevated consumption of caffeine was to compensate for his quitting smokeless tobacco, another dangerous substance that baseball players are allowed to use. Oddly enough, no physician interested in avoiding lawsuits for malpractice has ever been known to prescribe chewing tobacco as a means of solving any medical complication.

However, if you were to ask a professional sports league official why tobacco is allowed, while HGH is not, they would suggest that it‘s a question of morals. Because HGH is falsely believed to enhance performance, users are labeled as cheaters.

Once again, we come across a contradiction. Not only are the performance-enhancing qualities of tobacco, elevated caffeine levels and HGH all able to be easily dismissed, but sports leagues also exhibit an extreme arbitrariness in what they consider to be moral issues and what they do not. According to most professional sports leagues, it’s okay to drink gallons of potentially harmful energy drinks while chewing on cancerous materials on the field, but not okay to repair a strained tendon with certain medications while benefitting from a recently legalized method of relaxation in one’s own home.

While consumed substances seem to be of the utmost concern for all professional sports leagues, some of the very same leagues aren’t concerned at all with the actions of their athletes beyond what they put in their bodies. Consider the annual parade of drunk driving arrests that that fans are presented with during Spring Training, for which not a single baseball player receives a suspension.

Alternatively, you can compare and contrast the suspension handed out to San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera for testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone with the punishment that Detroit Tigers designated hitter Delmon Young received for assaulting a man while uttering anti-Semitic slurs. Cabrera had a 50-game unpaid vacation that likely cost him millions in free agency for use of a banned substance, while Young was forced to miss seven games for a hate crime.

So, through this evidence we come to the conclusion that the seemingly arbitrary banning of substances isn’t consistently shepherded by concerns with health or morality, at least not completely. I use the “seemingly” qualifier for arbitrary because I believe there to be reason for sports generally considering some substances to be good and others bad, and it’s simple: Optics.

Social change takes time, and the voter-approved legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington is merely the beginning of a long process to ensure that current law matches modern attitude. Many across the continent still think of marijuana as unhealthy and immoral because that’s what we were taught as kids with catchy PSAs. Or at least, many think that many think this, perhaps because they think too highly of the influence of catchy PSAs geared toward kids.

At the Primetime Sports Management Conference in Toronto on Tuesday, the commissioners of several sports leagues spoke as part of a round table, moderated by Clark Griffith, the former commissioner of the Northern Baseball League. While Mr. Griffith suggested that drug testing was vital to ensuring an unknown outcome – the most important aspect to ensuring the legitimacy for sports – this message was expanded by the panel to actually mean: The business of sports is far more concerned with the perception of its stakeholders than the realities of the outside world.

We witness evidence of this with respect to human growth hormone. Multiple studies suggest that HGH is not a direct performance enhancer for professional athletes. It does possess properties that allow users to recover more quickly from injuries commonly suffered by athletes. However, because the previously unknown substance was first associated with Barry Bonds in the minds of many sports fans and officials, it’s still perceived to be dangerous and a form of cheating.

Until perceptions match reality beyond the demands of voters in two states and the studies of researchers, professional sports leagues don’t possess the motivation to alter their current values. There’s no reason for MLB, the NBA, the NFL or the NHL to want to be on the forefront of social change.

While the leagues act out what might be considered childish ideas of healthy and unhealthy; right and wrong; black and white, attempting to change the collective mind of professional sports – an enterprise based on making adults child-like through a vicarious experience – ahead of public perception is as futile as pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down and be pushed up all over again.

Fortunately, such a boring and physically demanding endeavor doesn’t fall under the purview of a professional sports league, as it would certainly require something in the way of substances to make it more interesting and less difficult.

References:

Amendments Don’t Change Leagues’ Stances On Marijuana. [USA Today]
Hickenlooper Poses With Cheetos, Goldfish And Legal Marijuana Advocate Ean Seeb. [Huffington Post]
The Growth Hormone Myth. [Slate]
Growth Hormone Replacement In Healthy Older Men Improves Body Composition But Not Functional Ability. [Annals Of Internal Medicine]
Not The Size Of The Dog In The Fight. [ESPN Classic]
GDR Athletes Sue Over Steroid Damage. [BBC]
In Hockey Enforcer’s Descent, A Flood Of Prescription Drugs. [New York Times]
Three Hockey Enforcers Die Young In Four Months, Raising Questions [CNN]
Yankees’ Pettitte Admits To Using HGH. [NBC Sports]
Josh Hamilton’s Eye Problems Related to Drinking Caffeine. [NESN]
Rumors, Experts, And Human Growth Hormone. [The Wages Of Wins Journal]