Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Shocked, Shocked About Steroids

Retired pitcher Curt Schilling once wrote an emphatic opinion piece on his 38 Pitches blog about the steroids era in baseball. According to Schilling, it's naive to think that any major league team was completely clean during that era, which he says encompassed his entire career.

It's deflating to realize that such awesome spectacles as the McGwire vs. Sosa home run race of 1998, the tape measure home runs of Bonds and A-Rod, the clutch hitting of Manny Ramierez, and the power pitching of Roger Clemens into his greybeard years have reflected the willingness of players to cheat and owners, executives, and managers to look the other way -- perhaps even encourage the practice.

In addition to steroids, consider: growth hormones (both human and equine); blood-doping (both human and equine); surgical enhancement (Tommy John surgery, LASIK); podiatrics (athletic shoe design); textile science (swimsuit fabrics); applied aerodynamics (curveballs, spitballs, knuckleballs); and statistical evaluation ("Moneyball"). And oh, those lovely East German swimmers! Success and failure accrue not just to athletes but also the technological prowess of the society that sends them forth into the arena.

Given the importance of sports in understanding the capabilities and limits of the human body, and the importance of sports science in developing those capabilities further, is there really a clear, ethical line between physical enhancements that represent cheating and those that are legitimate technological advances? Who makes that determination?

Consider the classical origins of athletics: as a means of inspiring, motivating and testing physical fitness, coordination, teamwork, and strategy -- in preparation for military battle. Somewhere right now, some American kids on combat patrol are probably taking various performance-enhancing drugs in a belief (true or mistaken) that doing so will aid in their muscle recovery or alertness and help keep them alive. Some American captains or sergeants might be encouraging this practice.

Somehow I doubt that the public would react to such "cheating" with the same scorn that it heaps upon juiced ballplayers who, for reasons both laudable and selfish, have given their bodies over to the R&D labs.

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