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August 7, 2006

Moral Relativism

Coincidentally, before I sat down to post part 3 of this drug series today, I saw Matt Lauer's interview with Floyd Landis. It was just painful to watch.

Lauer opened with his fastball, then repeatedly asked different variations of the same question: why should we believe you? Landis couldn't give a single straightforward answer and looked completely unconvincing. Heck, I felt myself squirming for Landis - I can't even imagine how defeated and ashamed he must feel. I actually felt bad for the guy.

On the other hand, maybe he's just getting the treatment he deserves.

I'm cutting the intro short, though - because this section is already over 1000 words long. I swear, sometimes I'm too analytical for my own good. Let's just move on to the next question...

Q: Would you ever use performance enhancing drugs?

A: This is the issue that prompts everyone to get on a pedestal and preach about the morality of athletics. Always play fair, don’t break the rules, don’t cheat, yada, yada, yada. But unless you’re Craig (an actual preacher), I’m not listening.

For obvious reasons, the most high-profile steroid stories revolve around each sport’s biggest stars. But for every superstar who may be juicing, there are thousands of younger (sadly, even down to high-schoolers), less talented athletes who confront the same question. Except in these cases, the outcomes of their decisions don’t simply pad the record books, but dramatically influence their livelihood in their chosen sport.

Imagine you’re a 29-year-old minor league baseball player making $25K per year and batting .240. You hit the weight room every day and train like a maniac, but your strength has seemingly plateaued.

You’ve played professional baseball for 10 years but never been called up to the majors. You don’t have any other significant career options that can support your wife and baby after you retire, because you’ve spent every waking minute working on your game. You know that if you don’t get called up before age 30, you probably never will be.

You also know teammates who started juicing and saw dramatic improvements in their performance. You realize that if you use the same types of low-potency steroids that many major leaguers use, you can maintain a higher intensity level in your training, and your strength will noticeably increase.

It doesn’t take much. A handful of those 350-ft fly outs would become 375-ft home runs. Send just one more ball per week into the bleachers, and your batting average could climb to .270. That would probably be enough for a call-up to the big team. And a salary increase to $300K. All with relatively low long-term health risk if done carefully.

Finally, you start seeing those aforementioned teammates - who may have less natural talent than you - getting called up to the majors. There is a trainer hanging around the locker room every day who has told you that he can easily hook you up - all you have to do is ask.

Are you telling me that you wouldn’t have that conversation with him some day? That you wouldn’t give steroids some serious consideration?

The closer you get to breaking through, the more tempting it is to bend the rules. If you’re a national-caliber 10K runner, a mere 45 seconds can determine the difference between missing the Olympic trials, and actually making the team.

Many sub-elite runners toil in obscurity and poverty for years, waiting for one breakthrough race on the national stage that will land them a shoe contract or an invitation to join a sponsored training group. Some runners get tantalizingly close: all it takes is a few seconds per mile over a 5K to make that kind of leap. But if it never comes, they have nothing to fall back on.

Now think of those elite athletes again. If you are a sprinter, what is the margin of victory in a major championship race? In many cases, it’s less than a tenth of a second.

If you could build your strength up enough to run one tenth of a second faster, that translates into significant tangible gain. You could win the 100m instead of finishing fourth. With prize money, sponsor bonuses, and appearance fees for future races, it’s literally a million-dollar decision.

But don’t worry, you won’t have to make your decision alone. Many young athletes are surrounded by like-minded individuals in similar circumstances. This circle of influence can be tremendously powerful, but not always in a beneficial manner.

This time, instead of a baseball player, think of yourself as a 23-year-old sprinter. You’ve never made the 100m finals of a major track meet. You’ve heard for years that the guys who are beating you (again, by a mere tenth of a second) are on the juice. Your longtime coach (who also happens to be your father figure since you never knew your own) has told you that your best chance of making a final is to level the playing field, to use the same weapons the faster runners are using. Otherwise, you’re constantly bringing a knife to a gun fight.

He tells you it’s safe. He tells you its effective. He explains that it's almost impossible to get caught. He tells you your teammates have done it. He tells you it’s the only way. And hey, if you just want to try it, he’s got some in his trunk right now.

I’ll ask again…can you honestly say you wouldn’t be tempted by this?

I’m absolutely certain that every single elite athlete faces this question at some point in their development. What I can’t imagine, though, is how I would respond if I were in that situation.

It’s easy to say, “These are the rules, don’t break them.” It’s much harder to consider all of the factors at play in making such a decision. As much as we like to believe in absolutes, all of us implement our own moral relativism in decisions about our careers and daily activities.

Are you reading this blog at work? Have you ever snuck out early or straggled in late so you could have a longer workout? Have you ever peed in a public area? Sure, these are trite examples, but the point is that nobody follows all the rules, and everybody creates an internal justification for those rules or laws they choose to violate.

For almost all of us, sports are merely a healthy outlet for our physical energy and competitive drive. Recreational athletes regard organized competitions as bastions of honesty and fair play. We wouldn’t think of cutting a corner in a road race, and we wouldn’t dream of contaminating our bodies in hopes of gaining an edge on our competitors.

But for a relative handful of athletes, the stakes are different. If we depended on our 5K time or our overall finishing place in order to support our families or to extend our careers for a couple more years, perhaps our moral compass would skew a few degrees off-center.

So OK, you have your principles. You don’t break the rules. Maybe you would be the one to draw a line in the sand and make the agonizing, career-limiting decision to say no to these ubiquitous temptations to cheat. And in the final analysis, maybe I would, too.

But the decision would be a lot harder than you think.


backofpack 8/7/06, 10:20 AM  

You are right Donald. The decisions are a lot harder than you think. And for all those athletes that make that decision to come down on the side of fair play and morality - we never know about them. We don't hear "Joe is testing clean every time". Nope we only hear about the failures. So, not only do they make the tough decision, but they don't get recognized for the ethical stand. In the end, what will matter the most, is how they feel when they look at themselves in the mirror, or when they look into their child's eyes. Those are the toughest judgements we have to face, and the only ones that really matter.

Ami 8/7/06, 10:24 AM  

These are great, well-written, insightful posts, Donald. Thanks for avoiding the knee-jerk response that most people have regarding these issues.

I understand and appreciate the points you're making. But I still don't get the idea that 1) they somehow think they'll get away with it, esp. in cycling, which is the most tested sport; and 2) any victory achieved through cheating would be at all satisfying or meaningful.

It's like getting A's in school by cheating. The 4.0 GPA means only that you're dishonest, not smart or disciplined or dedicated. Where is the joy in that? Even if it does get you into Harvard or Yale. Isn't integrity the most important thing we have?

I understand that there are other rewards aside from victory and that many of these guys (and gals) are under a ton of pressure to excel.

But still, I don't get it. In a big picture cost-benefit analysis they seem to end up screwing themselves every time by resorting to cheating. As it should be, IMHO.

And no, I have never peed in the woods. Oh wait - never mind. :)

matt 8/7/06, 11:15 AM  

i'll say it again, larry...you are making great points. yes, we all break rules and nobody is perfect. but if you are going to break the rules, then you have to deal with the consequences. trying to excuse yourself after the violation is something that you shouldn't be able to get away with. i don't get away with these things in the real world...nor should the athletes.

temptations exist and i don't fault people for failing to resist them. we are all human. we just need to start showing some responsibility. if you are going to compete in this world of high-pressure athletics, then part of your job is to know the rules, despite the arbitrary nature.

the underlying point here is that these people are held to a different standard when it comes to rules than the rest of us. athletes and celebrities alike, get away with crap that none of us would in the real world. if they have to keep up with a confusing list of drugs that they cannot take so that they can do what they love and support their families in the process, then so bet it. life/rules are much harder for all of us than those that compete on the highest levels. don't fault them for their choices, fault them for their reaction to their choices. being responsible for your actions is being an adult...as far as i can tell, some of these athletes are still children.

- thousand oaks

Thomas 8/8/06, 1:43 AM  

I think you're trivialising a few things here. Sure, if you think some drugs might make the difference between you "making it" or not, then you'd definitely be tempted. But you're completely ignoring the health effects of those drugs. Safe? Remember Flo-Jo? A mediocre runner who all of a sudden demolished every world-record, and a few years later she was dead. Was that really worth it?

craig 8/8/06, 9:33 PM  

Thanks Donald for helping me understand why there are no quick fixes to this problem. You've helped me understand why some athletes choose to take preformance enhancing drugs and why stopping the practice is so difficult (though I don't think I could ever condone the practice). I don't know that I've ever heard anyone express this side of the issue. I've enhoyed this series of posts way more than I thought I would.

I'm not a real sports fan. But if I was to do any moralizing on the topic of sports (being a real live preacher and all) it would be to ask what it says about our society's priorities that we are willing to expend great sums of money to finance the obscene salaries of people who play a game when there are so many hungry people in the world, so many homeless, so many without adequate health care and so many children without adequate educational opportunities.

You don't have to listen to me just because I'm a preacher. Lot's of people don't.

Thanks for the insights.

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