Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon are both facing 50-game suspensions after testing positive for testosterone usage. And baseball isn’t the only afflicted sport, of course, as the US Anti-Doping Agency today stripped cyclist Lance Armstrong of seven Tour de France titles and banned him from the sport for life for doping. Steroids, doping and other illicit performance enhancing drugs and treatments have become the biggest scourge of professional sports leagues, and that’s why it may be time they were made legal.
The primary reason why performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) are outlawed in professional sports is that they give users an unfair advantage over the rest of the field. Various professional sports leagues have attempted to set a level playing field by testing for drug use and suspending those found guilty. It’s a noble effort, but it’s clearly not working. Stiff punishments have done little to reduce the number of cyclists caught cheating every year; as Deadspin helpfully points out, the inheritors of Lance Armstrong’s seven abandoned Tour de France titles have all been implicated in doping scandals.
Major League Baseball also hands down suspensions each season to players caught using outlawed substances, and it’s absurd to think those players are the only ones guilty of juicing. So if we really want to level the playing field, it may be time to head in the other direction: legalize performance enhancers. Not only would the playing field suddenly be even for all players, it would be at a higher level. A huge part of watching sports is witnessing the very peak of human athletic ability, and legalizing performance enhancing drugs would only help athletes climb even higher.
Steroids and doping will help pitchers to throw harder, home runs to go further, cyclists to charge for longer and sprinters to test the very limits of human speed. It also makes sense for professional sports to allow steroids from a business standpoint. One needs only look to the late 1990s, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa put on two of the most memorable baseball seasons in 1998 and 1999. Even cursory fans became invested in the home run races, especially in 1998 when McGwire shattered Roger Maris’ 37-year-old single season home run record.
Jerseys flew off the shelves, games sold out and baseball was so exciting that some have gone so far as to claim it ruined post-steroid baseball. At the same time, legalizing PEDs would make life much easier for professional sports organizations currently tasked with managing convoluted anti-doping policies. There is a blurry line, for instance, between what is and isn’t an improper performance enhancer. Major League Baseball has strict limits on stimulants like ephedrine and methamphetamine, but no restrictions on caffeine use.
Athletes are also barred from human growth hormone, which reputably helps with injury recovery, but they have free use of muscle-building creatine. Not only would legalized PEDs help avoid the murky area of deciding what might be “too enhancing,” but they would save the bureaucratic trouble and possible embarrassment that accompanies disputed tests like Ryan Braun’s last December. Detractors will argue that steroids and doping can pose health risks to the athletes involved, but athletes undertake serious health risks by simply walking onto the field or straddling a bike.
Just last year, a media car ran Johnny Hoogerland off the road during the Tour de France, sending him headlong into barbed wire. Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann famously had his leg broken and career ended mid-game, and the devastating longterm effects of concussions are rapidly becoming apparent. Plus, if performance enhancers were made legal, then they could be safely distributed and regulated so that players aren’t forced to rely on shady back alley transactions for untested drugs. In baseball, legalized steroids could go a long way toward solving the contentious issue of Hall of Fame voting.
Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sosa will all be on next year’s ballot, and none are expected to earn entry because the Hall’s voters have so far kept out players found guilty or even suspected of using steroids. It’s a problematic approach, however, because a player who isn’t suspected of steroid use could be just as guilty as one who is. Take Barry Larkin, for instance, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier this year. Larkin has, to my knowledge, never been accused of using steroids. But the shortstop hit 33 home runs in 1996, right in the heart of the steroid era.
Larkin’s power that year was a career anomaly, as he never hit more than 20 home runs in any other season. I can’t say that Larkin used steroids, but I can’t say that he didn’t, either. The simple fact is that any recent player inducted to the Hall of Fame will enter under a veil of suspicion and uncertainty, regardless of what evidence exists. If PEDs are made legal in professional sports, then suspicion would no longer need apply and the best players would be fairly rewarded for their on-field performances.