“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]

Comments (34)

  1. Is it weird that I sing this song in the shower on a regular basis.

  2. I like the article, but not quite sure how you can argue HGH doesnt enhance performance, but you state ‘It does possess properties that allow users to recover more quickly from injuries commonly suffered by athletes.’ How is that not performance enhancing?

    • Recovering faster isn’t the same as performing better.

      But the biggest thing is that the effect of PEDs can’t really be proven- it won’t ever get a proper scientific study. With guys like Bonds/Clemens/whoever, how can we know how much PEDs affected performance without knowing FOR CERTAIN how they’d perform without them?

      And on the other end, we have a lot of guys who get caught with PEDs who didn’t really accomplish anything in their major league careers. Did it help them? Who knows? How much is affected by aging/body type? How much natural talent did they have? There’s too many variables to reduce it down to “PEDs are terrible and attack the nature of the game” (which no one’s doing here, I know, but that’s the kind of rhetoric that some writers spew).

      • Exactly. Faster recovery time doesn’t increase performance.

        • Maybe its just the semantics there over whats ‘increased performance’ If he gets back early, and plays 6 games instead of 5, its certainly improving, and giving an advantage a player who isnt taking it doesn’t get.

          • But a cortisone injection so a guy can play is totally ok.

          • Cortisone is an anti-infalmatory/pain masker. This is pretty different from expediting healing.

            I’m not disagreeing with any of you, really more to point out that I think the issue is higher up, like you say “what is increased performance?.” Is it recovery? Pain-relief? Muscle-mass gain? Anything that allows you to play? I don’t know.

        • A fair point Scott

        • “Faster recovery time doesn’t increase performance.”

          Must be a joke, right?

          Will a player perform better fully recovered (no pain), or semi-recovered (in pain)?

          Or, for what’s his name…

          Will he perform better fully recovered (no pain, no pain-killers), semi-recovered but no pain (thanks to pain-killers), or semi-recovered and in pain?

          It’s cheating.

          • It is cheating because it runs agains the rules. there is still the open question of whether the rules should be changed.

        • That depends on how you define performance enhancing. One could argue that if A drug helps you perform when you otherwise would not be able to then it is performance enhancing.

  3. You referred to marijuana as a “method of relaxation”, that’s a bit loose.

    Going to the spa is a method of relaxation. Getting a massage is a method of relaxation, amongst other things. Smoking weed so you get to an alternate state of mind, kill brain cells and can potentially become addicted leading to the use of other more dangerous drugs, is not a method of relaxation.

    We aren’t talking about human rights here. We aren’t talking about rights to speech, racial segregation, any of that, we’re talking about smoking a freaking joint. The players have done without up until now, and I’m sure they can continue to do so.

    • That’s some serious slippery slope logic there. I don’t belive that the world is the luge track that you imagine it to be. I could be wrong, but if you’re going to argue that marijuana is a gateway drug, you’re going to have to show evidence of that fact.

      • Condemning anything as a “gateway drug” is silly in my view.

        If you’re going to condemn marijuana for that, then it ought to go double for tobacco and alcohol. There are no greater “gateway” drugs than those as that’s where most kids and partying starts.

        Sex is a “gateway” to every sexually-transmitted drug out there, so should we demonize and ban sex?

        My front door is a “gateway” to all the ills of the world, but so far I haven’t banned myself from going through it every day, though I am partial to long periods of hanging around the house in my underwear. But I digress.

        • Er, that should be “diseases”, but sexually-transmitted drugs sounds fun. Making a mental note to get the boys in the lab right on that.

    • hahaha, can’t believe we still have to listen to these arguments about marijuana. Pharmaceutical pain-killers are worse on almost every measure you mention. Long-distance running can also put you in an alternate state of mind, kill brain cells, and be very addictive. it can also act as a gateway into taking dangerous drugs (heavy pain-killers).

      Smoking marijuana is a right even if not on the same level of significance.

      In the states many homosexual couples have gone without the right of getting married, should they just continue to do so? Before emancipation slaves had gone on without freedom. For decades children in schools got along without learning about evolution, would have been easier to just keep doing so.

  4. I think the following PSA should be shown to Brett Lawrie before every game.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GN9dANKe_Y

  5. Generally speaking, when an issue perceived to be unclear, have multiple points of view and different interest groups providing different solutions, I find it best to “follow the money”.

    Put aside the potential results of the recommendation of one lobby and ask the question what would they stand to lose if unsuccessful?

    After that exercise look at who stands to loose the least amount of relative money and influence and give them the “Good Guy award”.

    Then, look at who stands to gain the most amount of relative money and influence and give them the “Ambition Award”.

  6. I think you also have to bring up the fact that drugs like marijuana are not tolerated in sports because they represent ‘idleness’ when the sport you are partaking in embodies ‘determination’. Put simply, your body as an athlete is a machine for entertainment. Steroid use seems more rampant in the NFL because they are “war machines” and poor Rickey Williams gets ostracized for pot. Again, because its a “pleasurable thing” not necessarily because its immoral

    • Are you a pot head, Focker?

      • Nope. Not a pothead. Just look at drug regulation in sport and its pretty plain to see 1) don’t cheat (but steroids not really conceived of as cheating in the same way in NFL vs MLB). 2) athletes can use pot (see Phelps) unless you play a sport where you are supposed to use your body as a weapon (MLB seems to care less than NFL in this regard). It’s a confluence of our entertainment (the spectacle); consumption and purity (ie keep your body pure of “fun drugs”). The gateway argument and harm to oneself are less prominent for the athlete thsn the teenager.

  7. I find it interesting that players are the ones who get labelled as cheaters when it was owners and Major League Baseball as an entity that profited more than any individual players off of the so-called “steroid era.” Now, years later, it’s the players who are saddled with the tarnished public perception and not the teams and league that were fully complicit in any so-called “wrong-doing”

  8. Let’s not forget though that most people involved in sports tend to fit on the right side of the political spectrum. For the last decade or two the right has been engaged in a war on drugs (a defined set) while working very hard to help big pharmaceutical companies. People choose not to see the tension in this position (or the tension with a general conservative idea in that government should have little say over things like your recreational drug use).

    • though I don’t know how that fits with the ban on steroid or HGH use….

    • The “war on drugs” has been going on a lot longer than a decade or two. In the United States, t’s been 30-40 years in its present form, and really almost 100 years going back to the first drug laws and prohibition on alcohol.

  9. Parkes, have you ever watched the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster*?

    It raises a lot of interesting questions about PED culture and examines a few of the points that you raise here. I’d recommend it if you haven’t seen it already.

  10. DDDDDRRRRRRUUUUUUGGGGGSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS

  11. RRRRREEEFFFFFFEEEERRRRRREEEEEENNNNNNCCCCCCEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSS

  12. Nice article Parkes – appreciate the broader view and ‘ask the bigger questions’ stance. In that vein, I do find it curious that most of the articles and analysis on the drug issue in sports don’t acknowledge the larger issue of scientific progress in general. There are a lot of moral arguments to be entertained but I wonder why we never frame it in the sense of advancement. You could make a case the modern use of player analysis, scouting, precision training and strength work, equipment enhancements, specialized role players – and yes drugs – are all the product of smarter and more informed people seeking advantage. We seem to be clear(?) an advantage via certain specific drugs equals cheating, but what about the systemic advantages of tech and science? You can do a bonds vs Ruth comparison and ped’s inevitably come up but what about how much more prepared Barry was? The tape he saw, special trainers he had, the best of science he could buy to be bigger,stronger and faster. And even today, i have to believe the purely ‘legal’ science and info available to someone on the yankeees dwarfs wha’ts available to the astros. They have a systemic advantge their wealth and position confers. Are those players cheating? While moral issues play a part in this debate, I think how we deal with progress does too. And baseball’s (and sports in general) unwillingness to even embrace new math, makes it seem we still don’t now how to make something feel the same, or right or true or proper or traditional or ‘ok’ when everything else (food, fitness, research, medicine) advances at a rapid pace around it. Instant replay, WAR, HGH, hyper engineered equipment.. These all seem to me in the same world of gray, and while morals are part of it, how you embrace the modern without losing the traditional, looks to me to be the even bigger question we rarely ask in a systemic way.

  13. This article is a complete waste of electrons, conjured by an obviously morally vacuous anarchist.
    I blame your parents and to a lesser extent, rap music for your questionable ethics and complete inability to accept the inherent logic of banning PEDs from the field.
    PEDs are banned for a few basic and essential reasons.
    1-PEDs are bad for childhood development
    2-most parents love their children
    3-sponsors don’t want to be associated with products that harm or threaten the well-being of their patrons
    4-sport is a diversion and meant to be easily digestible,definite and…diverting. People want to see their champion beat the other guy’s champion, it makes their life more ordered.
    Parkes, if you had ever actually played a sport at an even mildly competitive level; you’d know that 14 year olds and PEDs shouldn’t mix. Unless of course, you believe that shrunken testicles, hepatitis, attempted murder charges and a whole bevy of assorted negative associations are something a 14 year old should have to deal with

    • “morally vacuous anarchist” best/most insane comment in awhile

    • I can’t tell if this is sarcasm. Your fourth point seems to suggest that it can supersede the other points since we’d presumably want better champions produced at any cost to help maintain this “order”.

  14. I’m glad to see that you do intend to continue to post here and I think that these less frequent, but more extensive posts could be really good. That was unfortunate timing for the first one! Have you already explained where you are moving on to? I may have missed it, but am eager to find out.

    Getting to this post: I suspect you might have guessed that I would disagree with a few things.

    The whole post seems to have been constructed around marijuana. You don’t explicitly say that it is banned as a performance enhancing drug by MLB, but I think it is implied. While it is on the banned substances list, it should be made clear that a distinction is made between drugs of abuse and performance enhancing drugs. Furthermore, marijuana is part of a special category which draws no suspension from MLB.

    “Every day, doctors across North America prescribe anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and several other medications banned by [MLB]… 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.”

    Again, this paragraph is very misleading. The previous sentence stated that marijuana wouldn’t be the first illegal drug to be banned in professional sports. You then talk about anabolic steroids and HGH before going back to talking about legal, over the counter supplements. Anabolic steroids and HGH just do not fit in this part of your post because they are not legal in the US or Canada without prescription, which means that they are not legal to purchase ‘over the counter’.

    You seem to talk about HGH as if it’s the main drug that players are accused of abusing. I don’t see any evidence for this. While I think it is good that MLB has started to test for HGH, they haven’t done so in a way that is likely to catch anybody because there isn’t any in-season testing. You even make it sound like Colon’s suspension was connected to the HGH that probably went along with his surgery, but that’s almost certainly not what caused his failed test two years later.

    I have seen you raise this idea that sports leagues are arbitrary in deciding what to ban. It doesn’t seem arbitrary to me at all, at least for MLB. All the drugs are on the Code of Federal Regulations’ Schedule of Controlled Substances. You can argue that the Code of Federal Regulations’ Schedule of Controlled Substances is arbitrary, but I don’t see how MLB is being arbitrary in using this list. In your specific example about tobacco, energy drinks and HGH, it is pretty obvious to me what the distinction is. Two of the three are ‘completely legal’, as you put it.

    Overall, I never really understand what you hope to achieve from these posts. You trivialise a very complicated issue and use strawmen arguments to put down the MLB’s policy on PEDs but I haven’t seen you offer an alternative. I would like to see you do that one day. My preferred approach is very simple. Get rid of the current policy, which I see as being too lax, and work with WADA to ensure that the policy is as up-to-date as possible and which places an emphasis on storage of samples and testing over several years as new tests are developed.

    I’d also like to see you write your Lance Armstrong post, hopefully including your thoughts before the evidence against him became insurmountable.

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