Our PED Problem, and the "Virtue of Victory"

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Bill Simmons wrote an excellent piece a while back. In it, Simmons asked sportswriters and fans to start taking an effort to discuss and disclose the impact and prevalence of performance enhancing drugs. To take the veil off the problem and bring it into the public discourse. The piece was excellent, one of the best things Simmons has written in ages. It was a return-to-form to his pre-Grantland work, and his work before "ESPN Bill" was a prominent side of his personality at all. Despite enjoying the piece, I had a few misgivings -- mainly with the way that the piece seemed to reinforce a few prominent ways of looking at sports, cheating, and the hazards of the game. Today I'd like to discuss that, specifically emphasizing one particularly important point.

Nothing in sports is fair.

• • •

In a general sense, the entire pursuit of sporting achievement is thumbing one's nose at the concept of fairness. We like to ham up the morality of the thing as we puff up concepts like the "right way" to play and the pop culture adulation of a well-oiled, well-regulated team. "Guess the victors got more hours in at the gym! More practice, more effort, more energy." On some level, most of us buy it. We consume media to that effect on a daily basis. The virtue of victory gets tangled up in the victory of virtue -- if they won, they HAD to be the more virtuous. They must be morally upright, winners of a wholly fair contest. But let's be honest with ourselves, if only for a moment. That's bunk. There's no socialist ideal at the core of a sport's being. No element of unique fairness-by-skill that levels the playing field. It's not a big deal, but it's the truth. Skill and talent aren't fair at all, and they never will be.

What is sport? Distilled to its barest form, it's a physical competition. Lots of different physical skills must be honed and built, with a few mainstays per sport. In the case of basketball, muscle memory plays a huge role. Soccer requires deft passing and maneuvering. Football takes heft. Baseball takes a strong swing. Tennis takes endurance and next-level vision. And so on and so forth! Becoming a star at a sport isn't simply a matter of going to the gym and developing skills. It's a matter of having the skills to begin with. A player needs to have the physical framework to develop their talents, the physical traits to excel with effort. People don't start at some identical square one -- there are players in the NBA who are athletic mavens, players who have barely played the game at all and succeed primarily by the strength of their incredible athletic gifts. And there are those who aren't like that at all, who made the NBA through incredible effort and hardship in the face of slim natural talent (only relative to the average NBA guy, of course -- professional players already pass a high barrier to entry).

The same is true in all sports. Much as we enjoy trumpeting fairness, there's nothing fair about the way talent is distributed in the realm of sport. We can talk a good game about teams getting over the top with practices and hard work. At the end of the day, how big of a factor is it? Do we really know whether last year's Heat practiced any harder than last year's Thunder? What's more -- does it really matter? It essentially boiled down to the same thing that crushed the Stockton-Malone Jazz and the Barkley Suns. The losers were playing one of the best players in the game's history at the peak of his powers. No amount of practice or hard work was going to really overcome that, if we're honest with ourselves. LeBron and Jordan were simply better. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, just as there's nothing wrong with people having different inherent skill levels in any career-of-choice. But there's also nothing particularly fair about it. It's an unfair game for an unfair world, and that's the point.

• • •

Speaking of fair, there's a good teaching example here. Consider Roy Hibbert and Carmelo Anthony. How many of us have chortled at Hibbert's struggles this season, or sniped at Indiana and Portland for giving him such an exorbitant contract? Fair, I suppose, although more people need to pay attention to his essential dominance on the defensive end for Indiana. Regardless, pull the veil back for a moment. Fans get huffy and irritated at Hibbert for his struggles on offense or his tendency to get winded when he plays big minutes. In a vacuum, that's reasonable -- Hibbert has been offensively dismal this season and extremely frustrating to watch. In context, though? Doing so strikes me as somewhat callous. Hibbert isn't just any average athlete -- he's an athlete with asthma, who has to follow a strict practice regimen. He has an inhaler and everything! Hibbert has had to triumph over poor fitness and health issues over his whole career. He's persevered and emerged as an essential player on one of the best 7 or 8 teams in the league.

Isn't that an accomplishment worthy of praise?

Then consider Anthony's case. Whereas Hibbert had to deal with physical ailments, Anthony dealt with personal ones -- his father died when he was just two years old and he grew up in a single-parent household in an incredibly rough part of Baltimore. Gangs, killings, et cetera. Most of us already know this given the "stop snitchin'" gaffe, but it's worth thinking about in a broader context -- isn't it a massive accomplishment for Anthony to have made it this far out of such a harsh early life?

Isn't that an accomplishment worthy of praise?

Obviously, yes! It's a huge accomplishment and it's something that deserves a lot of respect. Comparing Hibbert and Anthony, though, how can one really delineate which player deserves the most respect? Anthony clearly has more natural talent than Hibbert, but Hibbert had to battle through a physical ailment that Anthony never grappled with. But Anthony went through dire financial straits as a young child that Hibbert never had to touch. If you're expecting me to give you a final answer, I'm sorry to disappoint -- properly contextualizing the individual accomplishments of Hibbert, Anthony, and any set of NBA players isn't just a difficult problem. It's downright intractable. Part of the reason we ignore context like this is that it's essentially impossible to apply this kind of multifaceted understanding to the actors in a sport on a broad scale, and it's only useful when talking about individuals. But it's essential context, especially when you bring performance enhancing drugs into the equation.

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"What's so amoral about PEDs, as a concept or an idea?" Sounds a bit ridiculous. But step back for a moment. The whole point of sports is to be the best that you can be. Optimize your talents within the confines of your chosen sport. PEDs in their myriad forms are one way certain competitors try to rise above others. Is the use of a PED all that different, in many cases, than simply being born into a family of greater wealth, superior genes, or better connections? There's nothing wrong with LASIK eye surgery for a point guard to see the angles. There's nothing wrong with energy drinks to wake up on a rough morning. There's nothing wrong with modern medicine to counteract what would've been just decades ago career-ending injuries.

Are some PEDs different from that? Indubitably. But if we're drawing a stark line and building a bogeyman that makes offenders of our code downright criminal in the public eye, where do we put that line? Make no mistake -- performance enhancing drugs run the gamut. Many are illegal, many are experimental, many are terrifying things with hazards we may never be entirely sure of. The threat that these drugs pose to our players later in life is a complete mystery. That's not good. And indeed, there IS a PED problem. But our PED problem manifests itself in so many different ways that it's difficult to pass moral judgment on athletes before we really figure out the nature of the crime. Rashard Lewis was tarred with the PED brush without even knowing he was taking a banned substance, for goodness sake! Some athletes inject terrifying substances into their blood -- others just try a questionably legal treatment just to stay ahead. Amidst a maelstrom of dust and wind, fans yell "cheater!" and cry foul. But, again: where's the line?

Having a discussion, as Simmons lays out, is a great step forward. We need to get the PED discussion out of the darkened smoke-filled barrooms and into the open. But whatever discussion we have about PEDs needs to be just that -- an actual discussion. It can't simply be a McCarthyist witchhunt without context or debate over the entire role that PEDs play in the sport. They are a bad thing, perhaps, but they're varying degrees of bad. And arguably, some aren't bad at all! Some are innocuous, others mortifying. And just as it's altogether impossible to properly put a player's background into context, as I tried to demonstrate with the Melo/Hibbert example, are we really ones to be screaming of fairness and broken trust in a contest that's unfair at its core? In short, while context is vitally important to any real understanding of our modern PED problem, we've been substantially deficient in applying it.

The PED caterwaul is a reflection of something a bit more fundamental -- cracks along the surface, perhaps, in a broader societal misunderstanding of virtue in sports. The zeitgeist conflates virtue with victory with little heed to the concept of lingering unfairness. The idea that an athlete used drugs to achieve their ideal necessarily undermines our assumptions of fairness. Which thereby forces us as fans to (finally!) re-examine assumptions that never made a ton of sense to begin with. Understandably, that makes us feel uncomfortable. But discomfort is necessary to advance the discourse, and as we're often reminded, not all discomfort is bad. Not when it's essential and core to the entire endeavor, at least.

9 comments on “Our PED Problem, and the "Virtue of Victory"

  1. Many (most) PEDs are unhealthy for those who take them. An equilibrium where all professional athletes take PEDs is worse for all athletes than one where none do, assuming the drugs enhance each of their performances equally.

    The situation we currently have, it seems, is in between - some athletes take PEDs, and some don't. This creates a confusing situation for fans. I'm a fan of Steve Nash and I want him to succeed, but do I want him to screw up his long-term health in order to play better? No. But I also don't want him to be at a competitive disadvantage to those who do.

    In summary, PEDs have costs for both athletes and fans, and no real costs. If your point is that PEDs are on the same spectrum as things like cortisone injections and high-risk surgical procedures, then I agree. But in that case, vilifying those who use PEDs serves a useful purpose by shifting where on that spectrum it's acceptable to be.

  2. I agree with what is being said here. The fundamental issue is that there is no set of consistent guidelines, both morally and "legally". Is it ok for players to use HGH in order to speed up their recovery? Why not? Is it a form of performance enhancing? That's my issue. I'm on the fence about it. It seems that there is no real research on this. Just the people doing the administering.

  3. Thank god, I was waiting for someone to write something like this. I mean, what's the difference between PED's and other such? I'm not sure and i don't know if most sports fans are, so this whole thing needs to be addressed.

  4. If there were foods with the same effects as PEDs, would they be acceptable?

    Same benefits, same downsides, they just come from a plant that you eat.

    I can't tell.

  5. What I think you're missing is that people don't mind PED's because they make sports unfair, or sever the link between on-court production and effort. What people mind is that they sever the link between natural talent (plus effort, personality, and so on) and production. For example, you're beginning to see a lot of LeBron/Jordan pieces, as people are starting to realize that LeBron at his best is just as good or better than Jordan was at his best. Now, why debating the relative merits of two great players is so fascinating to so many people, I don't know, but debates of this kind are a huge part of what following sports is about. Sports are a sort of drama in which the payoff, for many spectators, is finding out who the best really is, that is, which players are the most physically gifted at, and mentally and emotionally equipped to, playing a sport. And people will watch a player like LeBron, not just for a game or a season, but for 15 or 20 years just for the sake of that payoff, the payoff being finding out just how good he really is. Now, suppose that LeBron wasn't as naturally talented as he appeared to be, that his size, strength and athleticism were largely fueled by PED's, and that without them he'd be about as good as prime-years Paul Pierce. That would completely ruin LeBron for everyone, not because people thought he got as good as he did by working hard, but because the whole point of LeBron is that he is this 1 in 6 billion genetic talent.

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