Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Performance-Enhancing Drugs and Competition

Today, one of my classes had an intense discussion on the issue of whether athletes should be allowed to use performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). A good friend of mine observed that no one forces athletes to use PEDs and fans love to see enhanced performance. So, my friend conjectured, why is there such a big fuss about the use of PEDs? He even proposed having a superhuman league along with a regular human league to appease others in the room. I think it is a touchy subject, but my friend hits on some good points.

Being an economist, I love watching sports because it is an entertaining forum for competitive behavior. Sporting events are an arena in which I can appreciate suitably ingenious strategies. For example, I am a huge fan of American football, but primarily because American football is a haven for interesting strategy. I'm not fond on seeing muscular guys get concussions, but I am fond on seeing a good game with some good strategy.

Given my inclination for watching sports, a natural question to ask is "What effect do PEDs have on the strategic nature of the game?"

In a calculating sense, PEDs have become part of the strategy. In this respect, it is just like training or batting practice or -- even -- drawing up the plays. Recognizing this aspect of PEDs is central to identifying what people identify as wrong with them. If a PED was not a substance that is injected into the athlete, but a specialized training regimen, people would not have a problem with it. That said, if eating raw spinach out of a can allowed someone to hit home runs like Mark McGuire did on his chase for 61, people would not have a problem with that activity either.

Apart from being something that athletes put in their bodies, there's something else going on with PEDs. The illegitimate status of PEDs comes from a confluence of two factors. First, taking a PED is an unnatural attempt to circumvent our typical human limitations. Second, with most PEDs, there are probably some adverse side effects. Coupled with the intense competition of sport, PED use by some players may induce competitors to take the drugs, and then everyone gets to suffer the side effects.

You may recoil and tell me that athletes willingly entered into this contract before joining the sport. That's true, but I would like to draw the analogy between these side effects of PEDs and the motivation for having rules that govern the safety of play in a sport. It is a penalty to grab someone by the facemask in football. It is also a penalty to "spear" (tackle by leading with your helmet down).

These rules make a sport civil, but they also protect the players from the dangers of intense competition in their sport. Rules protect athletes from each other (in the case of a facemask) and from themselves (in the case of spearing, a primary concern is neck injuries on the part of the tackler). At a basic level, rules banning PEDs perform the same function as rules governing the safety of play. As fans, we love to see intense competition, but the savages of competition give us pause.

My point is that there are two sides to the debate on the use of performance enhancing drugs. As an interesting counterpoint, I conjecture that PED use is commonplace in our society. To have a productive morning or evening, most people I know have harnessed the benefit of a favorite PED of mine. What is this performance enhancing drug? Coffee.

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