The Athletes-on-Steroids Debate

Arguing Over Nothing:A regular feature on the blog where we argue over something of little consequence, as if it were of major consequence. Arguing is philosophy’s raison d’être, and the beauty of an argument is often as much in its form as its content.Today, we argue about the acceptability of professional athletes using performance-enhancing steroids. Sides have been randomly assigned. Jim argues here for a pro-steroid position, while I take the con.

Each philosopher is granted up to a 500-750 words to state his/her case as well as up to 250-500 words for rebuttal. The winner will be decided by a poll of the readers (or whoever happens to have admin privileges at the appropriate time).


Jim: Arguing for the Use of Steroids

Really? I’ve been assigned the pro position? Dammit. Fine.

Before I present my arguments in favor of this very fine topic, I want to first lay out the purpose of the athlete, showing what I think the athletic endeavor is meant to display or do and what it is not meant for. Once that groundwork has been properly lain, my actual arguments will be easily to see and agree to.

Sports itself is merely a kind of communal physical activity, the doing of which I need not bother defending, as it is patently clear that nearly everyone (and my claim is not affected if ‘nearly everyone’ only picks out a bare majority) desires the company of others (while not every possible ‘other’, at least some people who are not oneself), and it is physically beneficial to take part in physical activities. Watching sports is another matter entirely, and it is here that the role of the professional athlete needs to be made clear.

One claim about athletes is that they show to the rest of us what the human body can do, what an object of grace and strength and fortitude can accomplish. I will not dispute that (though if the topic comes up later, I will be more than happy to give it a shot). I will claim that such displays are well handled by the amateur athletes — those who play college sports or in the olympics, or even in minor league sports. Such athletes are the ones who are competing for, among other things, the glory of the game or to personify the strength of the human spirit, and other such claims. The important aspect to note about such athletes (for the most part) is that they are not payed to play. They compete because of the joy and sense of accomplishment and what have you that they receive from the mere fact of competition. Our being allowed to watch such activities is enjoyable, but their purpose is not solely, I suggest, for our entertainment. Our entertainment is a by-product of their true purpose. Such is not so for the professional athlete.

The professional athlete exists to entertain us, the non-professional (perhaps even non-) athletes. The pro achieves remarkable things, often moreso than does the amateur, but professional accomplishments are the by-product of their athleticism — their purpose is to entertain, and any crossover into the realm of ‘attaining human perfection’ and the display thereof is but icing on the cake. We watch professional sports, if we do, because it entertains us. It entertains us with its athleticism, its drafting us into particular communities of comrades and opponents (our city/division/league is better than yours). We are happiest when our team wins, when we see events that we could not imagine happening otherwise, when we see records broken (records that mean nothing when not used to compare our team to that of another), when we see impressive feats of scoring or the prevention of which — we are happiest when we are entertained.

Professional athletes who take steroids are better capable of amazing physical performances than are those who do not. We watch professional sports because we want to be entertained by amazing physical performances. In fact, professional sports exists solely to provide such a venue. Therefore, athletes should be allowed to take steroids. They should be monitored to ensure they are as safe as possible, of course, but if steroids makes them better serve their purpose, then take them they should.


Alec: Arguing Against Steroid Use

First things first, the line between amateur and professional athlete is quickly evaporating, and we should reframe the argument appropriately. The Olympics, once the exclusive domain of amateur athletes, now allow professional athletes into the mix, because Olympic officials decided to let the best athletes in the world compete, not merely the poorest. There is also more parity than ever between professional and amateur athletes, in that college athletes are not only closer to professional level than ever before, but are also as equally involved in the entertainment aspect of the athletic industry. College football ad revenues in 2010 — for just the top 15 programs in the U.S. — topped a billion dollars.

So let’s dispense with the pro/amateur distinction. The bottom line is that athletes of any sort have two concerns: being the best they can be, and entertaining others. Even a middle-aged weekend warrior worries about looking good in front of the twenty people watching him play a very mediocre third base. The same warrior revels in the glory of an unusually graceful moment in the field. Alternately, the most jaded professional athlete can still revel in his athleticism even in the face of the realization that he is just there to make money. And obviously the professional has to worry about his entertainment value, even as he might be conflicted about it.

Now that the metaphysics are out of the way, we can analyze things more easily. The goals of being an athlete are two-fold (at least): being the best human specimen, and being the best entertainer. And this impacts the steroid debate in two ways.

Being the best human specimen. The key word here is, of course, “human”. What we (and the athletes in question) should be concerned with is developing the human body to its greatest potential. Once we start adding manufactured chemicals into the mix, we are getting into the realm of superhuman, or, perhaps more aptly hyperhuman. You will argue, no doubt, that athletes should be able to take, say, ibuprofen without being considered enhanced to an unnatural degree. And I agree. But surely also there is a line past which we cannot cross. By the time we get to adding bionic body parts to an athlete, we have certainly crossed that line. I argue that steroids have crossed that line as well.

Being the best entertainer. To some degree, it strikes me, no one cares (nor should they) what an entertainer does to enhance themselves for the benefit of the performance. But if we think about it for a moment, we might change our tune. Take, for instance, the extreme case of the singer who lip-syncs in concert. This is the ultimate enhancement to the singer’s biology. (Never mind that the enhancement is external to the singer. Picture a bodily embedded vocal track if it helps you.) But when we discover such an enhancement in practice, we become upset, and rightly so. We want to see live vocal feats — the human body stretched to its limits in a beautiful performance. We don’t want to hear prerecorded “perfection”, just because it’s possible. Similarly with athletes. When we find one cheating (corking a bat, taking steroids, doping), we are rightly dismayed. And this dismay is founded on the same basis of the previous paragraph. We want to see human-ness developed; not hyperhuman-ness.


Jim’s Reply to Alec

I will grant you the pro/amateur distinction is not a large one for this topic, but my so granting is due more to lack of space than to agreement. I will say this before moving on to the bulk of my reply: That various countries (America included) are now including professional athletes in the Olympics does not show a change in the inherent status of what an athlete is or is meant to be, it is instead a very successful attempt to move the Olympics from a showcase of Athletic achievement into something very much like a “our team is better than yours, so nah nah nah” mentality. The athletes that competed in the games were, for the most part, professional in the sense that they often only ever trained for the Olympics to the exclusion of anything else. Be that as it may, let’s move on.

Being the Best Human: This, I think, is, or is traditionally thought to be, the main purpose of the athlete. When we tend to think of the classical athlete, it is the Greek ideal we think of, and their supposed desire to reach perfection with the body. That desire was steeped in the idea of natural perfection, but why must we be trapped in such a conception? You mention a line we should not cross, but where we draw that line is arbitrary. Ibuprofen is allowed, but why? Because it is commonly used? That was not always the case — it only became so over time. Reconstructive knee surgery is not natural, is it? And yet it is quite common among athletes. Apparently taking steroids is the norm among bicyclists. Does that make it natural now? Otherwise, what is your definition of natural? It cannot be, or I suspect you do not want it to be, just whatever naturally (without our intervention) occurs in nature, so what else is it besides what is commonly accepted? Steroids in that latter sense were once unnatural, but are no longer so. Is constant excercise natural? Not in America. Does that disqualify athletes who work out in order to be better? You tell me.

Being the Best Entertainer: I wholeheartedly agree with you about singers being given false aid through the use of auto-tune or whatever the new audio enhancement is going to be called. Those are not biological enhancements though. There is nothing about that which I believe can properly be labeled as a human improvement. Steroids work on the muscles themselves, or so I gather; at the very least, they work on the body directly, and amplify its abilities to do more than what it can presently do. Auto-tune modifies a feature of the body that is separate from biology itself. It takes what the body does and works on it as a separate entity, treating it no differently than one might hair that one donates to a charity. Studio work modifies an entertainer no more than CGI does. Most of us know that we are not being entertained by a person, but by a computer’s rendering of some aspect of a person. Steroids do not make the body work differently — they make it work better (leaving open the meaning of ‘better’ here as something that is common sensical in the realm of sports).


Alec’s Reply to Jim

You have hoisted me by my own metaphysical petard! Well played! Indeed, the line to be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable performance aids is arbitrary. I was sort of hoping you’d miss that. Maybe, however, there’s a slender non-arbitrary thread at which to grasp here.

Ibuprofen doesn’t enhance one’s performance; it merely lets one perform through some minor discomfort. Reconstructive knee surgery doesn’t create a better knee than one originally had; it merely gets a knee back into useable form. These, I claim, fall safely on the acceptable side of the line separating acceptable from unacceptable. Steroids are meant not as an ameliorative nor as a repair, but explicitly as an enhancement to one’s otherwise natural ability. With steroids, one can be a better athlete. With, e.g., knee surgery, one can at best resume one’s career at the same level as previously.

Your example of constant exercise throws an undeniable wrench in my theory, however. Exercise is, clearly, meant to be something that improves one’s athleticism, and therefore could be seen as falling on the unacceptable side of my fine line. Yet obviously this is at best unintuitive and at worst a crushing blow to my theory. I admit that I have no unassailable defense against this. However, let me try one last maneuver. Let’s call “natural exercise” any form of exercise that one could undertake without advanced technology. Any form of running, stretching, weight-lifting, etc., would fall under this umbrella. (Never mind that most, e.g., modern weight machines are obviously technologically enhanced — someone with the appropriate set of rocks and sticks could emulate the majority of this technology.) Now let’s call “enhanced exercise” any form of exercise that relies inherently on technology. For instance, I’m imagining some sort of computer-aided analysis of muscle fibers during a workout, with an algorithm that instantaneously guides the athlete through electrical feedback into better postures. I claim that natural exercise is always acceptable, and enhanced exercise always unacceptable. And with this arguable line drawn anew, I rest my case. Tenuously.

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