Monday, November 06, 2006

What’s Wrong With Steroids?

From time to time, I see a news story about some athlete who has been caught using steroids to improve his performance. Everyone seems to agree that this is a bad thing and should be punished, but it is not entirely clear why.

I can see three possible answers. The first is that, since steroid use is currently banned, the athlete who uses them is breaking the rules, cheating in a competitive game. That leaves unanswered an obvious question: Why are steroids banned? Absent the ban, using steroids is no more unfair competition than practicing on the weekend.

The second answer is paternalistic. Steroids can have undesirable long run effects on their users. If athletes, many of them young and inexperienced with the world outside their profession, are free to use them, they may do so even when they should not. That is especially likely in the competitive world of sports. A carpenter who performs ninety percent as well as a competitor can expect to receive about ninety percent of the competitor’s income. A professional football player who runs ninety percent as fast as his rivals is no longer a professional football player.

Given the paternalistic assumption, the argument seems plausible, but it is strikingly inconsistent with how we treat other competitive sports. Taking steroids may indeed reduce your life expectancy, but so does driving a car around a racetrack at something over 200 miles an hour. In that case too, a ten percent reduction means, not that your salary as a race driver goes down ten percent but that you are no longer a race car driver.

The third and most interesting answer is that competitive sports are special because what is being consumed is relative not absolute output. We reward a race car driver not for driving faster than 230 miles per hour but for driving faster than any other driver in the race. It is at least arguable that our pleasure from watching our favorite baseball team play depends not on how well it plays but on how much better it plays than the opposing team.

If that is true, then a change that makes one driver faster or one team better produces a benefit for that driver or that team, but a change that makes all drivers faster or all teams better produces no benefit for anyone. A change that makes all athletes faster and cuts three years off their life expectancy makes nobody better off and makes all athletes worse off. That sounds like a plausible reason for preventing such changes, insofar as we can.

Comments? Is that a plausible explanation? Is there a better one?


Anonymous said...

I can think of one paternalistic parallel: requiring safety equipment, such as hockey helmets.

Crosbie Fitch said...

Are you're assuming that the purpose of a competition is to reward the fastest/fittest?

It may actually be to reward the individual who obtained the most from their body without engaging in risks that other competitors considered unsafe.

Perhaps the solution then is to have different competitions?

Drug free and drug permissive?

Make your choice, but be honest about it?

Anonymous said...

I like the last explanation best. The other two were right and I agree, but the one about drivers having an advantage at the same time is the excuse given most. The issue of competitive balance is always brought into light since the records are sacred ground in sports like baseball. The problem with this thinking is bad since many modern day players have advantages that other players now do not when they are training, even outside banned substances. And, of course when you look at the past, many players didn't have exercise equipment, supplements, a certain type of nutrition, salaries that allowed them to practice all year along etc.

Anonymous said...

There is also the fact that taking steroids without a prescription is illegal. This is sort of similar to point #1, but a higher authority than simply the commissioner's office. I don't think MLB or the NFL would openly endorse an illegal activity.

Anonymous said...

Could you imagine a race where there was no constraint on the mode of locomotion?

So runners can race against horeback riders, and motorists and rocket cars.

This is possible but not very likely. Because, I think what we are interested in is competition between things of a kind.

So the steroid user is not being judged according to his kind.

What this takes into account is the strong intuition that steroid use is cheating

Anonymous said...

What is really odd though is that the player's union is on the wrong side, acting aggressively to oppose testing and penalties. It's in the player's interest to form a non-steroid using cartel, since the health benefit accrues to them, and nobody else should particularly care, but this isn't the behavior we see.

Anonymous said...

While I don't think there is any justification for *government* to take action when it comes to steroid use, it makes a lot of sense for the various sports organizations to prohibit it just because for most sports most people simply aren't interested in seeing competitions for who has the best drug regimen.

If somebody wanted to start a sport where people *did* compete based on drugs and other "artificial" means of pumping up one's body, I don't see any problem with that, and I think your argument about "nobody being better off" would not hold - one could argue there's entertainment value in grotesque bodies and absolute performance. But for the most part that's not what people want from baseball or cycling.

I think the main reason the government gets involved with steroid regulation in US baseball, for example, is because of the monopoly granted to MLB. MLB would rather face the regulation than lose their monopoly privileges.

Anonymous said...

What's fun about sports is watching the way athletes can push themselves in ways that you and I could push ourselves, only we don't have the will for it. Anyone can take "injectable grade dietary supplements" with the same ease as anyone else.

Paul Stagg said...

To respond to Sean Lynch:

There are competitive orgainizations that do exactly what you suggest - expressly allow drug use. There are a number of powerlifting organizations that do so (most of them also provide a drug free alternative).

This creates an interesting attitude among powerlifters - those who lift in 'tested' organizations while using drugs are shunned, mocked, and lose credibility within the culture. Even the drug users don't like people who lift in 'drug free' meets while using.

This scenario also allows powerlifters to compare like conditions - I know that as a drug free lifter who uses single ply gear how I match up against others under the same conditions.

If I decide to run a cycle and use double ply gear, I know how I match up against other lifters under the same conditions.

It works quite well.

John T. Kennedy said...

In baseball, where steroids have gotten the most attention, there is also the sense that the players of today are in a way competing against the players of the past. Many baseball fans don't want to see long standing and revered records eclipsed by players employing advantages unavailable to previous players.

Many fans are unhappy about the fact that all of the players who beat Roger Maris' home run record were probably on steroids, because it gave them unfair advantage over him and others. They'll be unhappy if Bonds gets the career record.

John T. Kennedy said...


"it makes a lot of sense for the various sports organizations to prohibit it just because for most sports most people simply aren't interested in seeing competitions for who has the best drug regimen."

From 2000-2004 Barry Bonds was the greatest hitter who ever stepped up to the plate. Whatever else that was or wasn't, it was certainly interesting to see a level of performance that had never previously been achieved.

Mike Huben said...

The major problem with steroids is not that high-ranking professional or amateur athletes are taking them. It is that the vast pipeline of high-school (or younger) athletes should not be based on steroid usage. They are too young to be making such decisions responsably. All the vast number of unrealistic hopefuls should not be taking excessive amounts of steroids in desperate hopes of making up for their other lacks (talent, body type, practice, etc.)

Anonymous said...

We seem to be taking it for granted that steroids can be dangerous and reduce life expectancy. Is this true? And even if it is true, might not the highly increased quality of life steroids bring make up for it?

William Newman said...

Given the vast surging storms of paternalism around anything drug/medicine related, it may sound silly to ask this, but how much does paternalism necessarily have to do with it?

I have noticed in other sporting events that they tend to evolve toward a large basket of (seemingly, to me) incoherent restrictions, rather than a few simple ones. Consider racing equipment (cars, yachts...). To me the natural conditions for sailing race equipment would be something like "your boat must weigh less than 1400 kg, and must have no powered equipment on it [full stop]." Instead contests end up with a zillion little constraints on length, sail area, displacement, materials, whatever. Mostly they don't seem to be paternalistic, just micromanagement without the moral overtones of paternalism.

It is possible to run contests which buck the trend, and I know of some geeky contests which do (like ICFP programming contest and DPRG Roborama). But for non-geeky contests the trend to lots of micromanagement seems very clear to me.

Anonymous said...

I think Mike Huben has it right. To my mind, the issue here isn't so much with atheletes at the top. I don't much care if everyone in the NFL uses steroids. But I'd really like to avoid the situation where everyone playing high school football needs the competitive advantage of steroids. I don't know if high school sports routinely do drug testing, but it sure seems like that would be more valuable than doing it for the pros.

I'm not sure about the argument that "we don't want to have records broken by people with advantages others didn't have." Alex uses steroids to improve his hitting. Bob videotapes his swing at high speed to analyze and correct it with the help of his coaches and advanced computer models of the physics of hitting the ball. Is it offensive for Alex to break records, but not Bob? Why?

Anonymous said...

A problem with the third explanation is that it may not turn out to be the case that if everyone in a sport takes steroids, the competitive rankings will be the same as they were before anyone took them. Some may benefit more than others, so it need not be the case that everyone in the sport is better off if a ban is in effect.

Swimmy Lionni said...

Could you imagine a race where there was no constraint on the mode of locomotion?

Or, as South Park put it, using steroids is like pretending to be handicapped to win the special olympics. It puts you in a different class, different type of competition. This is less fun to watch and puts dangerous pressures on the athletes who don't wish to use steroids.

Perhaps there could be steroid and non-steroid baseball leagues?

Anonymous said...

Should steroids be banned? I don't really care. Should they be illegal? That's what matters, and hell no. Steroids aren't just performance enhancing --- if used properly, they're life enhancing. I'm not going to bother trying to prove this, and I'm anonymous for reasons which should be obvious. But if you really dig with open mind, you'll realize I'm telling the truth here.

What I find to be the most interesting is the origins of the opposition. Where did this delusion of the deleterious effects of exogenous testosterone come from? Why do people feel such a strong need to believe in it? And why the resounding negative stigma? These are the intriguing questions.

I'm a college student, and college students being who they are, talk of marijuana and ecstasy is regarded as par for the course. However, the few times I've tried to even broach the subject of steroids, I've met an eerie air of reprobation that I would normally expect to be reserved for ambassadors of NAMBLA. If anyone knew I juiced, I dread to think of the consequences. This taboo disparity is insane. From whence does it come?

Anonymous said...

The third explanation seems to suffer from exactly the same inconsistency as the second. If there is a positional externality involved in sports, why not indeed prohibit racing at high speed?

My best guess is explanation no. 2. The paternalism involved might very well be inconsistent, but why should democratic decision making lead to consistency?

Anonymous said...

Imagine that there are no laws against steroids. Some competition will still have that "paternalistic" approach an decide to ban steroid use for their competition... or they may do so because people want to watch "the real things" or any other reason. It's their right to do so.
Now a sport profesionnal can choose to participate in drug free events or to use steroids... there is an incentive for them to go in the competitions where they will live longer and be drug free rather than to go for the extreme competiton.
If the public is indifferent to relative performance and absolute performance then all the competitors would prefer the drug free event... there's no need for a law.
Now it may very well be that people are sensitive to absolute performance, but in that case the argument that "no one is worst of" is wrong.
What's most likely? I think most people will prefer to watch "genuine" competition, the drug free ones...
One could think there would be pressure for the competitors to go in the not drug free events, but clearly the boxers aren't "pressured" to do UFC type events so they can use their legs.
Of course they would still be a niche market for extreme chemical or genetic enhancement competitions, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Anonymous said...

Surely the absolute speed is important, take the top speed down to 80 miles an hour and who cares.

Besides it isn't true that nobody would benefit, sports fans would benefit by not having to endure stupid scandals. athletes would benefit by not being banned periodically.

Anonymous said...


And more importantly, if actually no one would benefit then all competitions would de facto prohibit doping, since the athletes would favor those competitions where they can stay more healthy...
The truth is it benefits to some people and there would be a segmentation of the market.

Anonymous said...

Car racing speeds have decreased over the past twenty years among the larger racing leagues, due primarily to driver concerns about safety.

This is imposed by creating requirements on the cars for certain engine and aerodynamic features which slow down the cars.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question. I would think steroid use removes the purity of the sport, besides giving unfair advantage to the player that uses steroids.

Other than the illegality of acquiring a non-prescription medication without a prescription, it boils down to ethics. Of course, I guess you can avoid the legalities by using steroids manufactured for livestock.

Anonymous said...

Fourth answer: athletes are rational but in setting MB=MC s.t. "legal steroids" on the aggregate create MSC>MSB because of negative externalities.

~tragedy of the commons
~enforcing cooperative strategies in infinite games to solidify a better equilibrium

With ban and rigorous testing, most athletes who do private marginal cost-benefit analysis are drug-free. Some do drugs but if later discovered, lose titles and get bad publicity. In this case, marginal social benefit is roughly equal to marginal social cost.

Without the ban, each athlete has a profitable deviation to use drugs (if everyone else uses drugs - that's the only chance to compete, if few people are using drugs - that's an easy victory). Now most people use drugs but the aggregate quality of sport hasn't changed much for spectators. For athletes, the number of "trophies" hasn't increased and salaries are probably similar.

Arguably, social benefit is larger because more people can run 100 metres under 10s, more people can jump over 6 metres with a pole, more people can run a mile under 4 minutes etc. Right now, women cannot do any of these. Perhaps, with new (harmful) drugs they will. These absolute magic numbers are very important to athletes - entire documentaries have been made about how athletes spent all their life trying to break a specific absolute limit (competition vs. self).

But this gain is much smaller than social cost of average decrease in life expectancy of athletes.

While for an athlete with a career of 2-8 years it makes sense to sacrifice several years of life in relatively unproductive old age to be able to compete (esp. with future discounting), it doesn't make for society to allow that.

maurile said...

I don't think it's correct that in competitive sports, relative output matters rather than absolute output. NFL football is so much more popular than high school football in large part because NFL players are bigger, faster, stronger, and more skilled. NFL games are more fun to watch because the players are simply better.

matt hit on what the answer should be, but apparently isn't. It is in the interests of the players to agree among themselves not to use steroids. From the players' perspective, the health benefits of a steroid ban (all of which accrues to the players) likely outweigh the cost to the players associated with a reduced absolute output (much of which is borne by the owners).

Thus in the collective bargaining process, it should be the players' associations arguing for more stringent tests and the owners' arguing for relaxing rules against steroids.

For some reason I cannot figure out, it is generally the opposite that happens.

Simon the Conservative said...

My simple answer to this question is:

Steroids hugely eliminate the gap between professional sport players versus real amateurs who do not have the time to train themselves 10 hours a day.

By banning the use of steriods, professional sports collusion can effectively erect a barrier to entry, thus protecting their inflated income.

Allen said...

Actually, I disagree with the idea that it's some sort of "keep the others out" type of system in terms of enforcing steriod bans. I disagree with that because it assumes that steriods have huge benefits, like they're some super drug that enable the user to do anything and everything. I think that goes to explain a large part of public opposition to them. We beleive they're a super drug that enables anything and that taking them is cutting corners and avoiding good old fashioned hard work.

Sporting leagues should be free to choose to ban steriods. But there shouldn't be a blanket ban based on the assumption that they help.

Unknown said...
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Grant said...

As an amateur race car driver, yes this is exactly correct. Motorsports has similar regulations placed on the cars themselves. These regulations are generally put in place to increase safety, reduce costs, and make the cars more similar in performance (or more precisely, to reduce the marginal benefit from spending more money on a car). In professional motorsports, regulations are also put in place to make the sport a better advertising platform.

Its just another example of internalizing public goods.

One thing which is missed in this post, and unfortunately by a lot of rules-makers, is that an unenforceable rule only penalizes the honest. If regulators cannot detect steroid use, a rule against steroid use only penalizes the honest athletes who do not use steroids. This is well known in motorsports, where cheating is widespread. Everyone knows they must cheat where they can, because everyone else is doing the same.