- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

The question is too simple to be answered without some context. I assume it is directed at professional athletes who use steroids to enhance their performance, contravening rules that prohibit this.

If there are no contrary rules, players are free to take whatever drugs they choose, no matter how dangerous they may be, although professional sports organizations should accept an educational role so players can better appreciate the attendant risks. And, no matter what you may hear or read anywhere else, there are risks, both short term and long term. It is irresponsible to ignore them or to pretend that there are no reliable data pointing to the risks.

The other assumption (failing which there would be no need to solicit articles like this) is that sports have adopted rules prohibiting the use of certain drugs, including steroids. The question is limited to steroids, but there are many other drugs used in professional sport. Under this scenario, players compete, knowing the rules against the use of steroids, but some disregard them in order to obtain a competitive advantage.

At this point, it is worth taking a step backward, to consider the essential nature of sport. Sport is an activity defined and governed by rules agreed upon by all participants. Without rules, there is no sport. People considering whether or not to participate have a choice — if they do not like or disagree with the rules, they are free not to opt in. No one is forced to participate in sport. But, if they opt in, they must participate in accordance with the rules. Their competitors are entitled to rely on such compliance. If a rule is no good, it can be changed, but only by the sport as a whole, not unilaterally by individual players.

One of the sport rules, just like any of the many rules governing the field of play, equipment, scoring and so forth, is that the players may not use steroids. This may be a good rule (I think it is) or a bad rule (others will argue in this direction), but once it is a rule of the game, that is the end of the matter, unless the rule is changed at some time in the future by those representing all of the participants. In the meantime, if you use steroids, you are breaking the rules of the game and should be subject to sanctions.

Enter the professional sports organization: What should it do? First, it should educate its players regarding the existence of the rule and the reasons for it. Second, it should recognize that human nature is such that some players will cheat. It must, therefore, have an effective testing program to ensure compliance with the rules and have sanctions that will be serious enough to act as a deterrent. It should also make it clear that the health of the athletes is a factor, in addition to the integrity of the game and the expectations of players, spectators and the public at large. By appearing in a game or competition, every athlete makes a positive affirmation that he or she is in compliance with the rules. This is a higher standard than ordinary social conduct.

The “what it should do” is quite clear. Sadly, this is a far cry from what happens in practice. While lip service is paid to steroid-free sport — what professional sports organization in America would dare to say that it does not care what its players do or use — the detection and enforcement activities of some of them make the Keystone Kops look like Sherlock Holmes. An effective testing program for steroid use must be 24/7/365. Knowledge that testing will only occur during the competitive season is an invitation to use the offseason to bulk up. In spite of this, if someone is inept enough to test positive during the season (thereby failing an intelligence test as well as a drug test), the sanctions are ludicrous. A good steroid program produces an advantage lasting four to five years.

In Major League Baseball, the sanction is less than a third of a season; in the National Football League, a quarter of a season. It is practically an investment to take the risk of being caught. The message is that the professional sport organization does not care as much as it pretends to care about steroid use.

There are those who apparently welcome a sport system that allows drug use. They argue from the wrong premise, trying to pretend that because they do not think the rules are right, no one should be penalized for breaching them. Facile examples of advantages achieved in the absence of rules prohibiting specific conduct or equipment are trotted out as purported and illogical justification for use of steroids. They would not want their own children to use them but are free with advice that there is no risk, which non-acknowledged risk can be controlled with medical supervision. It is important not to be mesmerized by this well rehearsed “patter” and to separate the occasional kernel of wheat from the industrial quantities of chaff inherent in the “open everything up” agenda.

Turning sport into a pharmacological contest will destroy it. Responsible parents will keep their children out of it. The public will understand that it is no longer sport they are watching, but increasingly violent gladiatorial entertainment. Support for it will decline. Even the public has limited tolerance for meaningless freak shows.

Richard W. Pound, a former Olympic swimmer, is a member of the International Olympic Committee and was the founding president of the World Anti-Doping Agency. He remains a member of the WADA Foundation Board and is chancellor emeritus of McGill University in Montreal.

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