Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Sports

I’m not a good skier, but I’ve got my planks* on and I’m starting to slide down the slippery slope.

A week ago, the Sports Yak World was abuzz: Ray Lewis, football icon, about to play his last game, was implicated for using illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

Wait, no, that’s not quite it. The drugs are perfectly legal for you and me. They are against NFL rules, however.

There had already been whispers and speculation about Lewis. He’d had a severe injury, one that even his younger peers take months to recover from, and he was back on the field in a few weeks. Folks were looking at him with suspicious eyes even before a guy came out and said he’d sold Ray-Ray the stuff. The guy even has a tape of a phone conversation where Lewis asks for the substance.

The restricted product? Deer antler spray. Yep.

Quick chemistry lesson as I understand it (don’t be basing a thesis on this): Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is a chemical that is proving a valuable therapy for overcoming injuries, particularly in the elderly. In the body, HGH becomes IGF-1. Deer antler spray contains IGF-1. Snake oil salesmen have started selling deer antler spray to suckers and athletes. There’s no actual evidence that it works. (Ray-Ray also bought requested magic stickers. Seriously.) [Edit: I’m pretty sure Lewis got the stuff for free — the snake-oil salesman was hoping for an endorsement.]

But, given the slice of evidence presented to me, it’s pretty clear Ray Lewis (who denies everything) knowingly used a chemical specifically banned by the NFL to hasten his healing. That was cheating. Ray Lewis cheated, and he just won a Super Bowl.

Now, I’m not a Ray Lewis fan. Not at all. Weaseling out of a double-murder charge by testifying against your friends is not going to win your way into my heart. (He has been, since, a publicly stellar dude. If that’s the real Ray-Ray, if he really did learn from his past, then the God he talks about will welcome him.) I’m not a Ray Lewis fan, but I have to ask: Whom did he cheat?

He sure as hell didn’t cheat his fans. Remember, what we’re talking about here is that he used a safe method (well, a derivative of a safe method) to heal faster. Whom did he cheat?

I think we need to step back and look at why performance-enhancing drugs were banned in the first place. There are two arguments in favor of banning the use of PED’s: fairness and safety.

Let’s tackle the easy one first. Kids were (are) hurting themselves taking steroids. Athletes were (are) putting dangerous amounts of stuff into their bodies and paying for a couple of years of excellence with a lifetime of kidney failure. This is a very bad thing. For that reason I agree that anabolic steroids should be kept out of sports.

But what if the drug is safe? What if there’s no benefit to taking a crap-ton, but a little in the right place helps you heal faster? Isn’t healing good?

So then we get to fairness. In the cycling world there was (is) a practice of drawing blood from an athlete, spinning out the red cells, and on race day pumping that super-concentrate back into the rider’s system. This is quite obviously not something we have to worry about high school kids doing to get an edge at Saturday’s track meet. At least not yet. But safety isn’t an issue here (assuming proper procedures). The practice is banned on the grounds of fairness.

Presumably the fairness argument is based on finances; less-affluent bike riders can’t afford the expensive treatment. But I’ll tell you this, kids: in the races where blood doping happens, ALL the riders have the money to do it. And, probably, they all do it.

So, overall, I’m not buying the fairness argument, and that undercuts a lot of the current policies. An athlete should be able (encouraged!) to use all that science has to offer to recover from an injury faster, as long as the kids watching in the stands won’t be hurt trying to follow the example.

Free the Antlers!

One prominent athlete failed a steroid test after taking deer antler spray. Turns out his spray had methyltestosterone (or something like that) in there. My guess: the deer antler potion salesman decided to add a little something that actually worked into his version of the spray. If we free the antlers, athletes won’t have to buy the stuff from shady guys selling the antler juice out of the back of a van. They’ll be able to buy refined antlers from reputable sources. Sources with something to lose if their spray turns out to be tainted.

It’s a slippery slope, but here’s the thing: I WANT my favorite athletes to enhance their performance. I want them to practice, I want them to drill, and I want them to be in the best possible physical form. When they’re hurt, I want them to heal quickly, and if they use a therapy that is safe and legal for you and me, then I say go for it. It’s not FAIR to ask them to endure recovery times longer than necessary.

Ray Lewis broke the rules, but I don’t feel cheated.

* Considering that skiers speak a different language, you’d think there’d be more ways to say ‘skis’.

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