When is ‘cheating’ cheating? Drugs in Sport Part I

The trick to an effective advertisement is to do something which captures the viewer’s attention. In this sense, as an advertiser, you are looking to provoke a reaction – be it sexual, humorous, outrage, other or a combination. When Sportsbet used Michael Johnson to advertise its new Android app this week, it was doing exactly that.

And it worked.

Johnson, who had to hand back an Olympic gold from the Sydney 4x400m relay, promotes an ‘unfairly fast app’ – a risqué ad which was surely intended to create mass outrage. People were a little outraged. After all, it is probably not a great look for a betting company which sponsors multiple sporting competitions to make fun of cheating. Personally, I though it was funny and, what the hell, in an age where a man who doesn’t read can be President, the ethical dilemma of betting companies poking fun at cheating really struggles for space on my cognitive radar.

If it’s provocative nature was designed to seduce me into downloading the app and chucking my pay on a multi involving the Knights to win the premiership and Federer to win the French Open despite not competing, it really didn’t achieve its desired purpose. It did, however, provoke me to think about performance enhancing drugs in physical contact sports.

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Earlier this year my favourite NRL player, Jarrod Mullen, tested positive for a steroid called Drostanolone, and last week was given a 4 year suspension by ASADA for doping. Mullo has stayed relatively silent throughout the process, however some people in the media suggested that he took, whether intentionally or not, the drug in attempt to help recover from the chronic hamstring injuries which crippled the latter part of his career. This article is not intended to defend Mullo – I know next to nothing about the circumstances in which he came to have it in his system, nor do I possess any knowledge of how steroids and other performance enhancing drugs can be used for recovery.

Rather, Mullo’s circumstances provide us with a really interesting dilemma to doping in contact sports; when is ‘cheating’ really cheating? If a hypothetical player took a hypothetical banned substance which could assist him in recovery, is this cheating? What if it could be done in such a way that would preclude any on-field benefit from developing?

Has ‘cheating’, in some circumstances, become defined by dogmatic principles which don’t reflect the reality of competition, technological advancements in anti-doping measures and modern medical treatment?

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The issue here is really what we consider to be ‘cheating’ – I don’t pretend to have any knowledge of how substances can or cannot assist in injury management, I will leave that to the experts. For the sake of this experiment, however, let’s assume that there is a banned substance which can help someone recover from, say, a hamstring injury.

What do you think cheating is?

I think a common definition is that cheating is an act by which you break the rules which govern the activity in which you are participating in. Most people would say Jarrod Mullen cheated because he took a banned substance. Fair enough too – but this article is not debating what the law is, it is debating what it should be. We are engaging in inquiry into the ethics of cheating; it is normative as opposed to positivist.

So what are the ethics of cheating?

If cheating is intrinsically related to someone not following the rules, the question necessarily becomes ‘for what purpose do rules exist?’ What do rules attempt to enforce? Written rules, or laws for that matter, are merely the codification of underlying principles which are believed to be necessary to maintain order or deliver a desired objective. The state doesn’t make laws against killing in a theoretical vacuum – it is bringing into being an enforceable set of rules which implement an underlying principle that people killing one another is bad. It does so for a purpose. It seeks to both maintain social order, and provide protection to its stakeholders (citizens) over whom it governs (some would say part of fulfilling its obligations under the social contract).

Sport and doping rules are no exception to this. If we apply the above principle to doping rules in sport, the question of why rules against performance enhancing drugs exist would be probably be answered as ‘doping rules prevent cheating in sport because it denies athletes an unfair advantage over other athletes’. There is an important aspect of this explanation which should not escape your attention – ‘unfair advantage over other athletes’. This brings us, in a circular way, back to what ‘cheating’ actually is – it is when one participant goes outside of the rules and takes advantage of the fact that other participants are following the rules, and does so for their own benefit.

Is using a banned substance in medical treatment still cheating?

Well, it does give an unfair advantage of other athletes who don’t use them for recovery, so it probably still would be cheating in this framework.

Is this framework deficient, however? Remember, we are questioning the ethics of cheating, rather than the operation of the current rules. Such a process would be incomplete with establishing the purpose of why certain substances are prohibited and others aren’t. It can’t be simply that a substance is banned because taking it gives an individual a heightened ability. After all, steroids are illegal, yet pain killers which allow athletes to play and train through immense pain are not. Protein shakes maximise the uptake of protein and amino acids into an athlete’s muscles, and different foods digest differently and offer variable nutrition, all of which affects athletic performance.

This is obviously taken to an absurd extreme, but it highlights the fact that we have drawn an arbitrary line between different substances. Why is this line where it is, and what does it teach us? Drawing an arbitrary line typically involves the use of judgement and imposition of a value set which seeks to distinguish good from bad. The question for us is what is the value which has been used in relation to performance enhancing drugs.

I suspect that most of us would initially respond that ‘fairness’ is the value by which we preclude some substances from being allowed to be used. There is an inherent assumption that ‘sport’ is a contest of humans, and there is something unfair about the use of substances to enhance one’s skill sets. It can’t be that however – because we consider it cheating even if everyone else is doing it. Everybody doped in cycling in the late 1990’s, and it is considered the darkest point of the sport. If fairness was the issue, we would just excuse it as a level playing field.

Further to the point, genetics are the biggest contributor to the unequal distribution of athletic abilities in a population of people. As I write, the first game of the NBA Conference Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics is in the 4th quarter. Lebron James has already scored 37 points along with 9 rebounds and 7 assists. Lebron James is 6’8’ (203cm) and weighs 113kg, covers the court at a top speed of 32km/h and passes the ball at up to 65km/h (courtesy of ESPN), if he isn’t the best NBA player of all time, he is the greatest athlete the game has ever seen. He is a genetic freak. No amount of practise will let me get as good as him. If fairness is the guiding principle for what is doping and what is not, then it would be an argument for legalising doping all together and giving everyone the best chance to be the best they can be.

So if it isn’t fairness, then what is the guiding principle? Well, there are two.

The first is that sport is about the spectacle of exploring the limits of human potential. It isn’t about the individual participants and the fruits of the genetic lottery. Rather, it is about seeing what humans at any level can achieve at their best – sport is about groups of people pushing their human potential. Naturally, at the highest levels of ability this a captivating spectacle. Doping just conflates and confuses between what is human and what is artificial – it is an arbitrary line, but it is line that necessarily needs to be drawn somewhere.

The second reason is health. In a free-all of performance enhancers, there becomes an obvious incentive for professional athletes, both current and aspiring, to take the most potent chemical concoction available to maximise present potential. If you aspire to be a professional athlete, you are often making the decision to sacrifice the long term health of your body for shorter term success.

Contact sports like rugby league, union and the NFL already take an enormous physical toll on your body. Athletes already do an incredible amount of damage to the bodies quite willingly. This desire to succeed means that without constraints on what they can put into their body, they will just drive themselves harder and harder, and dope more and more – because doping will become an essential step to success.

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Having established the reasons why doping is banned, and why it is ‘cheating’ to circumvent these rules, why is it that we are still talking about the use of performance enhancing drugs to assist with injury management? Didn’t my last paragraph cover the health reasons for why doping can’t be legalised?

Well it isn’t that simple – it is about distinguishing the purpose for the doping. Personally, I can’t see anything within these values which ethically precludes banned substances from being used in the medical treatment of athletes with serious injuries.

Yes – legalising performance enhancers for athletic development would open a Pandora’s box which would unleash a myriad of short and long term health consequences for athletes in contact sports. Bigger, stronger and faster athletes would result in more injuries in the short term, whilst abuse of various drugs would have monumental consequences for their long term physical and psychological well-being.

Legalising doping for recovery and injury management of athletes in contact sports, however, would not involve these issues, if regulated correctly. Governing bodies could implement strict supervisory regimes for players to be approved for treatment with certain substances.

I’m not talking about Huge Giant Human and his mate Tren doing a course of steroids to get even bigger during pre-season training. I’m talking about where a player suffers a long term injury for which there is a medically established treatment which involves the use of otherwise prohibited substances. The player’s team, if he were to undergo the treatment, would have to place him on a Restricted List for a designated period of time. The governing body could prohibit the player from undertaking certain physical activities whilst on the list, and team doctors would have to ensure that player’s blood and urine screenings returned results under a certain threshold before the player can return to unrestricted physical training.

It wouldn’t be that hard. Professional contact sports already have extensive bureaucracies and regulatory frameworks. Team officials are already made subject to league rules in regard to player welfare and injury treatment. Teams have been found liable where they have failed to uphold a duty of care in their treatment of a player or management of their injuries, so why do our prejudices against doping prevent us from permitting this?

Why is this question so important?

The issue is that too many players have their careers, their livelihoods, at the barbaric mercy of luck and misfortune. This isn’t cycling where wear and tear are more a product of the attrition of repetition. Careers in contact sports can end as quickly as a team mate colliding awkwardly with your leg in a tackle. Your body takes a battering week-in, week-out; it wears down your knees, your back, your ankles, your shoulders. Athletes regularly take impacts with G-Forces akin to car accidents. Why should they be denied injury recovery methods because we have an overly simplistic understanding of performance enhancing substances which hasn’t evolved with their use in modern medicine?

The irony of this is that whilst it is our own morals about doping which prevent contact sports athletes from being allowed to use these substances to treat their injuries, these injuries are incurred for the enjoyment of us, the spectators. There is something rather gladiatorial about contact sports – a baying for blood and high impact as we cheer on people who have made a profession out of hurting each other for our pleasure. If anything, we owe these players the ability to explore every medical avenue to extend their playing careers.

This isn’t just because they incurred the injuries directly from performing for our own enjoyment, either. It is a recognition of how the process of becoming a professional athlete in contact sports harms a person’s career prospects outside of his chosen field. I went to the best country Rugby League school in NSW. Although none of my friends went on to play in the NRL, at least 8 went on to have NYC contracts from my year. The long-term injuries they carry for people in their mid-20’s is incredible. I have mates who had their first knee reconstructions at 16 and, although they love the game, can’t get through a season of local league without a major injury because of the damage they suffered in pursuit of a professional career. Legalising at the top levels wouldn’t help them, but their stories are indicative of the damage contact sports can do to you.

Sandor Earl is a classic example. In 2013 he was given a 4 year ban from the NRL for using peptides to help with recovery from a double shoulder reconstruction. I know nothing about the effectiveness of the peptides he took, and whether they played any part in his recovery. What I do know, however, is that when he went rogue and undertook the treatment in 2011 he was desperate. He had just been given a lifeline by the Panthers when they gave him a one year extension and he was a 22 year-old with plenty of promise but only a couple of first grade appearances across two clubs to his name. Plenty of players with far more potential than Sandor Earl have disappeared into the abyss at this age. He had one last chance to show that he, and his body, were good enough to withstand the week-to-week rigours of first grade NRL.

What did he have to fall back on?

People often don’t realise how much pursuing a career as a professional athlete in contact sports takes it out of you. As a school boy, your education is the first sacrifice. Schools can say all they want about putting in place systems to ensure academic standards are met, but the rules are always bent for the good players. To get noticed by NRL scouts, you have to make rep teams and rep teams are disproportionately made up of players from the best school teams.

For schools, it’s a vicious cycle – sure, you can choose to not play an underperforming student in the big knockout match coming up – but if you lose, you are jeopardising the school’s reputation as a football powerhouse. How will it attract and retain the best young players? This flows onto teachers as well. Sure, they could fail the student and prevent them from playing, but if they lose is it really worth the outrage? Quite simply, the schools and the student-athletes have a mutual short term interest in sacrificing their education.

Look at it this way – despite the odds, you manage to ‘make it’ to a professional career. You have already down irreversible damage to your body, and all those training sessions and big games have jeopardised your education. You have no option but to succeed. Yet on the training paddock that day two injuries occur. You collide with a team mate and, landing awkwardly, rupture your Achilles tendon. Minutes later, a team mate jumps into the air to make a catch and lands on top of another team mate, causing him to spin around and land on his head, injuring his neck.

Both of you have medical treatments available – he can have surgery which, whilst requiring a 6 month layoff from any contact, will replace the damaged vertebrae with something artificial and have him playing again at full strength. You can go through surgery to reattach the tendon, but you will have a much better chance of returning to full strength if you use a particular peptide during your rehabilitation. The surgeon suggests that, if you were not a professional athlete, this is a form of treatment she would recommend.

Why should you not be entitled to that? Why should people who have made a decision in their teens to sacrifice everything at the chance of a professional sports career have their dream cut short because our ethical understanding of ‘doping’ is deficient? How is reasonable that a system can distinguish peptides from an artificial vertebrae or a shot of cortisone, yet can’t distinguish performance enhancement from injury recovery?

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Fascinated by philosophy and history, this blog is an outlet for my frustrations of living in a world seemingly dominated by accepted ignorance on one side, and entangled in the intellectual atrophy of post-modernity on the other.

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