There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and steroids in particular, in sports. But while two of the major sports in the US get most of the attention, what is carefully NOT said is that steroids permeate the entertainment industry.
This entire episode is really an aside for a thought I was developing a while back: Superman does ‘roids. As steroid abuse became prevalent in sports, we the couch potatoes began to form an entirely different idea of what ‘ripped’ was, and the bodies of superheroes naturally had to live up to that ideal. Our heroes, even the fictitious ones from other planets, have been sporting ever-more-sculpted bodies, keeping up with Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno and all the other ‘roided-up bodybuilders of the ’70’s.
Today, while sports-related PED use gets all the press, other branches of the entertainment industry are desperately clinging to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The entertainment press has no interest in exposing steroid use among actors; infidelity and coke are mainstays of scandal but let’s not talk about how Actor X got so buff for his last movie. Scandal sells, but only the sort of scandal that perpetuates the Hollywood Myth. In a land of smoke and mirrors, only the smoke and mirrors are sacred.
That’s not to say that the sports franchises have come clean.
Take the NBA, for example. The leadership of the league will tell you that steroids are not a problem in their league. This isn’t based on any sort of science, or on a rigorous testing policy (testing in the NBA is a joke), but rather on the assertion that steroids don’t enhance the type of activities that basketball players do.
Um… say what?
Let’s imagine for a moment that we could jump in a time machine and go back to the ’80’s, and have a chat with one of the greatest basketball players ever to have donned a pair of sneakers. We know Michael Jordan is motivated by winning and pretty much nothing else. So let’s imagine what his answer would be if we told him, “there’s a chemical you can take that will allow you to jump a tiny bit higher, last a little longer on the court, and to recover more quickly from the inevitable sprains and bruises that are part of your game. It’s not exactly within the rules of the game, but you definitely won’t get caught.”
Michael Jordan had that choice. Knowing how driven he is to win, which choice would surprise you more, that he did or did not use steroids?
What a potential nightmare for the NBA.
I have to assume that the use of PED’s is also rampant in hockey. Since an individual star has the least impact in hockey compared to the bigger three sports, the does-he-or-doesn’t-he discussions are less common. A hockey player could juice up until he turned into a minotaur and commenters would say “that line has had some great shifts lately.” Over 82 games the performance boost would be measurable, but wouldn’t stand out so flagrantly. So I think it’s safe to assume that ‘roids are in use, even though no one talks about it.
Then there’s the sport-like entertainment product brought to us by the WWE, called, euphemistically, “wrestling”. You want to see what max-boost steroid use will do to a human? Look no further. Image is what they sell. Back in the day some of the biggest names in the ring were also big tubs of goo. Strong men, and passable actors, but hardly ripped. Now, take a moment to look at the headliners for the next WWE event. Pretty crazy, right? Everyone knows these guys do steroids. As long as no one talks about it too loudly, all parties are allowed to let things continue this way.
So why are we OK with these guys using steroids, but not the athletes in ‘real’ sports? The generally agreed upon reason to ban these drugs is to protect the health of athletes. But is the health of a baseball player inherently more valuable than the health of a pro wrestler? If health were the real reason, then outrage would be consistent across the entertainment industry.
And, you know? I can get therapies for my sore knee that professional athletes can’t. Does that make sense?
If not health, then what is the reason? Is it fairness? I think mostly yes. As the system stands, people willing to break the rules have an advantage over those who behave ethically. Particularly in my favorite country, the United States, that rankles. It sure bothers me. So ‘real’ sports, where there’s actual competition, try with varying levels of success to catch the cheaters.
Unless you consider the NBA a real sport. (It’s borderline for me.) There’s really not much effort to enforce their drug policy. They do have random testing, sure, but they can only test a player four times each year. After the fourth test, a player is off to the races. Even before that, the tests are easy to beat.
Interestingly, this continued state of denial, of not doing anything meaningful to police the use of performance-enhancing drugs, puts the NBA in a position to bring about meaningful change. Were I king of that league, I’d pass the following edict: People pay to see the top performers in our sport. We will provide that product. To maintain fairness, we’ll allow all athletes in our league to take whatever PED’s are legal in this land, and we’ll even provide responsible medical supervision.
Bickety-bam, prohibition is over. And while there will still be cheaters who do unhealthy amounts of performance-enhancing drugs, the advantage they gain by doing so will be diminished. And when your favorite athlete comes back from an injury more quickly, everyone wins. Seriously, how can it be a bad thing when someone gets well more quickly? There are some big-name athletes with shadows over them because of ‘miraculous recoveries’. They must have cheated, right? What kind of messed-up system makes recovering from an injury too quickly a bad thing?
So let’s put on our Goggles of Reasonableness and question the assumptions behind the prohibition of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. And while we’re at it, lets recognize a simple truth: We want to watch enhanced performers.