Creative Destruction

December 14, 2007

Lies and Insistent Lies

Filed under: Criminal Justice,Current Events — Brutus @ 2:36 am

Anyone with an iota of sense has got to believe that despite vehement denials, many if not most top athletes are currently taking or have taken performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Cycling is one of the worst offenders, but it appears to be widespread in other sports as well. (There’s a blog about everything, of course, and Steroid Nation follows the news on this issue.) Recent admissions by Marion Jones that she had taken PEDs — unwittingly, perhaps — and lied to cover up the fact have resulted in her recently being stripped of her records, medals, and now reputation. Much as I’d like to feel sorry for her, it’s difficult to be sympathetic when she filed a defamation lawsuit against her supplier after she apparently knew that she had been doping. So not only did she lie (repeatedly), she insisted upon her lies in a lawsuit. (Similar insistence by Bill Clinton during his impeachment had the same hubris. Indeed, the cynic in me believes most people will lie out of expediency and insist on their lies when pressed. No shock there.)

Being a poor judge of character, I don’t know whether to believe pro athletes when they protest they’re clean. But I can observe that competition is so intense that there is often no way to compete successfully unless they join the doping ranks. It’s a shame, of course. Marion Jones isn’t the only athlete to pay a high price for the illegal steps she took to achieve her success, and doubtlessly others will admit their transgressions over time.

All this is a good reason to turn our collective attention away from professional sports for a while, not that I expect that ever to happen. When the superhuman feats demonstrated by athletes are revealed to be the result of widespread drug abuse, what pleasure remains for spectators? Or we could decide the opposite: throw competition open to achieving results by any means possible and let athletes decide what they want to do to their bodies. The record books may not represent a level playing field in terms of historical comparison, but within any given year, the top competitors would have no unfair advantages, since no PED would be off limits. And at least the charade would be over.



  1. PEZ, not PEDs. (Acronym humor. I can’t help it.)

    As to the larger question, I admit that I am fast losing my positive opinion for those professional athletes that have been caught in this scandal. I can’t hold the same respect for someone that does an end-run around the system. (Gods help me if Goose Gossage comes back with a positive test for steroid use in his past. That would force me to cast aside one of my childhood heroes, when I would stand on a mound of dirt and pretend I was closing the top of the 9th at Jack Murphy Stadium.)

    Yet I have to wonder, much like I have wondered previously, how much of this is related to the general culture of professional sports.

    At their collective feet we can place the constant drive towards bigger bodies, stronger muscles, longer stamina, and faster reflexes and, in the end, more lucrative contracts. If the difference between a 3-year/$15-million deal and a 5-year/$45-million-plus-bonuses deal can be winnowed down to a tenth of a second faster in the 40 yard sprint or an extra 5 MPH faster on the side-arm slider or any other single quantity, and that those quantities can be controlled by ingesting some performance-enhancing drugs, then the players have little to lose by taking PEDs and much to gain.

    Lest I be accused of stating that everyone that receives a huge contract is tweaking their hormone levels, let me nip that in the bud right now. Some, like David Beckham and Peyton Manning and Randy Johnson, continue to test clean and rightfully earn their significant paychecks. Admittedly, the Big Unit is constantly rumored to take PEDs, but none of the rumors have panned out. So it is still entirely probable for someone who has a completely natural talent to earn themselves an 9-figure contract. Yet for those that lack the extreme natural talent to do so, there are many corners to cut.

    Given the levels of personal greed in professional sports, at the levels of the players and the owners and the fans, I feel it improbable that the lowering of salary caps would happen again. The players will want an ever-increasing share of the pie. The owners want their market share to constantly increase. And the fans want whatever it takes to get their team to hoist the championship trophy. (Look what happened here in Denver when Allan Iverson joined the Nuggets as an example of fan-based greed. Everyone and their dead dog suddenly were demanding not only a playoff appearance but to win the whole shebang right out of the chute. AI != Superman, but try to convince a die-hard Nuggets fan of this, and all you get is incredulous stares.)

    And should a few PEDs supply what they all want, then they will continue to go behind the collective backs of the various leagues as well as turn a collective blind eye to the news when it is their superstar players that are caught in the occasional spotlight.

    Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could always be wrong.

    [EDIT] Pfeh. Sorry, Brutus. My comment was longer than your post.

    Comment by Off Colfax — December 16, 2007 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  2. I don’t know whether to believe pro athletes when they protest they’re clean. But I can observe that competition is so intense that there is often no way to compete successfully unless they join the doping ranks.

    All this is a good reason to turn our collective attention away from professional sports for a while….

    NO! Exactly the opposite. Now, more than ever, we should focus on professional sports while its is providing us with more than just entertaining diversion. In the past sports has provided important teaching vehicles regarding group dynamics, labor law, medicine, and other things. Now it’s providing important lessons about competition and meritocracy.

    In winner-takes-all competition, huge benefits derive from small advantage. Under circumstances in which 1) any individual’s the odds of victory, with or without cheating, are small, 2) the odds of being caught cheating are small, and 3) the payoff for even small improvements can be large, we should expect cheating. Consequently a large percentage of victors will have achieved victory through cheating, and will be in a position to teach others this lesson – whether or not the cheating actually accounted for the victory.

    This has obvious application to political dynamics. Elections, like sports and auctions, are a winner-take-all game. A political campaign can be understood as a kind of auction. A candidate aspires to use government resources to achieve certain goals, and may publically commit (bids) to do so. But in addition, the politician seeks may seek to sell government resources in exchange for votes and campaign contributions that have nothing to do with the politician’s stated objectives, and often that are marginally in conflict with them. So Candidate A may want to get the US out of Iraq. He may not care about drilling for oil in ANWAR. So he promises to permit drilling in ANWAR in hopes of attracting oil industry donations to his campaign, a campaign focused on ending the war.

    Of course, each candidate operates under similar dynamics. Each will promise as much as he thinks he can deliver. But if he thinks he has been outbid by a rival politician, he may then start promising to deliver as much or more than his rival, whether or not he believes he can deliver on his promise. Under these dynamics, every politician will have an incentive to over-promise – that is, basically, to lie. And one of those politicians will win, and conclude that the only way to win is by lying.

    The point is not that competitors are inherently immoral. The point is that rigorous competition creates the dynamics whereby nearly anyone who succeeds will have done so via some level of deceit.

    The point is not to be cynical – that is, to resign ourselves to the idea that people are flawed in that they fail to conform to our ideals. The point is to conclude that WE are flawed when we cling to ideals that fail to reflect systemic dynamics.

    The Mitchell study provides an important learning opportunity, if only people will embrace it. Alas, I suspect most people turn to sports not to learn about our world, but to escape it into a world of meritocracy. If sports no longer lets people fulfill this fantasy, will they seize this new development as an opportunity to learn? Or will they reject it and look for another source of fantasy? Both, certainly. But I’m hoping for a little more learning here.

    Comment by nobody.really — December 17, 2007 @ 6:46 pm | Reply

  3. i believe they do drug testing for the olympics.

    Comment by obie1993 — January 10, 2008 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

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