On Aug 23, 2012 Lance Armstrong notified the world that he would no longer pursue vindication with regards to the doping charges brought against him by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Given his years of steadfast denials of doping across his seven Tour de France titles and the subsequent years and investigations, this was essentially an admission of guilt in the minds of most. As a result of this “admission”, the USADA pledged to strip Armstrong of his titles and purge his name from the record books. Sports journalists and op ed columnists jumped on the bandwagon and typically fell into two camps: those who agreed with the USADA and seemed to want nothing less than a full banishment from the sport and debasement of his accomplishments, and those who disagreed with his doping decision but disassociated that from the positive impacts that his foundations and public health efforts have had. I look at things a little differently. I argue that not only should we not vilify Armstrong for his decision to dope (assuming that he did), but that his doing so was a rational course of action. I also argue that other professional athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) — baseball players, football players, etc — should not be criticized for their choices and in many cases are making calculated and reasonable decisions. Lastly, I believe that arguments to the contrary tend to be biased, misleading, and hypocritical.

The oft-stated argument against doping/steroids/etc typically goes something like this: “It’s very unhealthy for the athletes, it taints the record books and punishes those athletes who were clean, and it’s a terrible example to set for younger athletes who look up to pros.” Let’s tackle the health issue first because it’s probably the one brought up most commonly by the public. The question is, how dangerous are PEDs to the user? The answer is, it depends, but not nearly as dangerous as the media and government would lead you to believe. There are undoubtedly side effects of PED (particularly steroid) use: acne, genital changes, mood swings (although the evidence to support this is still weak), and heart/liver damage. There are a few tragic anecdotal stories of suicide as the result of steroid use, but the evidence for a causal relationship between steroids and suicide is not scientifically supported. Yet these side effects are consistent with those from drugs like alcohol and many legal pharmaceuticals that most adults can get access to with ease. And just as the most serious side effects of legal drugs afflict only a small percentage of the total user population, the same is true for PEDs.

The broad statement that PEDs are harmful ignores the distinction between “use” and “abuse” of any drug. Consuming a few drinks of alcohol here and there will have minimal effects on long-term health, but getting blindingly drunk every night will likely kill you and/or others around you. Similarly, there is a major difference between using PEDs under the monitoring and guidance of a trained medical professional and doing it oneself as one’s own peril. I cannot say for sure that professional athletes who take steroids are doing so under the supervision of a doctor, but they certainly have the financial means to do so and I would be hard-pressed to believe that if the use is so widespread (as is claimed) that there are not medical professionals who are involved in the process. Am I saying that PEDs are completely safe? Of course not. Am I saying that anyone could use them with minimal side effects? Of course not. But I am saying that under the right circumstance a healthy adult can use PEDs while taking only a modest amount of risk, and that the science supports this assertion.

I do want to make one important distinction however: I do not support those who promote or allow minors, those with existing conditions, or those that respond poorly to them, to use PEDs. In those groups of people, the side effects and long-term consequences may be much more severe and the potential benefits strongly outweighed by the risks. However, just as we create strict legal provisions to keep cars, cigarettes, and alcohol out of the hands of those below a certain age, and we require doctors to assess a patient’s health risks before prescribing a legal drug, the same provisions should apply to PEDs and athletes.

The second argument against PEDs is that it taints the record books and is unfair to the clean athletes. There are a multitude of problems with this argument:

  • This assumes the record book is already clean, which is completely unproven given that a) PED testing began relatively recently in most sports (NFL in 1987, MLB in 2005, Olympics in 1968) and b) given that testing is not 100% accurate, there is no guarantee that records set even in years after testing are clean
  • The “unfair” argument completely ignores a blindingly obvious truth: life (and sports) aren’t fair to begin with — some people are born smarter, taller, stronger, etc than the rest of us. Some aspects of those features are within our control — we can grow stronger via weight-training, for instance. This underlies a nature vs nurture debate, but the research supports this general statement: our genetics tend to determine a range within where we will fall with respect to a particular skill or trait, and our environment determines where within that range we will end up (e.g. my genetics may say I will grow to between 5’8” to 6’, but whether I’m on the shorter or taller end of that range will be determined by my environment). Now granted, that range may be very wide and people always point to stories where someone has the genetic odds stacked against them and still do amazing things — Muggsy Bogues, the 5’3” NBA player, comes to mind. But the reality is that those people are the exception, not the rule. And within any elite activity (i.e. professional sports), the vast majority of people will have some level of natural ability based on a complex array of factors that the rest of us simply don’t have and can never acquire, no matter how hard we try. Randy Moss, for example, was famous for his lackadaisical attitude during practices, yet he managed to put together arguably the greatest season ever as a wide receiver for the Patriots in 2007, all while competing against some of the most talented and well-trained athletes in the world. In reality, the “unfair” aspect of the argument is cherry-picking and ignores the innate advantages that most top-tier athletes have over everyone else.
  • The third problem with this argument is that it completely ignores other performance-enhancing advancements that have shattered records. The swimming competitions in the 2004 Olympics provided arguably the best example of this, when radically new swimsuits designed to increase buoyancy and decrease drag caused records to fall at an unprecedented pace. These were advantages that modern athletes had that earlier ones could only have dreamed of, yet even though the suits were eventually banned the records were allowed to stand. Ignoring these advantages and pointing only to PEDs is cherry-picking as well.

The third argument against athletes who use PEDs is that they set a bad example for younger athletes who look up to the professionals. While I sympathize with this argument more than the other two, there are still a couple problems with it. First, professional athletes conduct themselves in many ways that are terrible examples for kids: drinking and driving, heavy drug use, eating disorders, dogfighting, even homicide. Yet despite this litany of terrible activities that regularly headline ESPN and SI, the one that stirs the most emotional hatred is one that affects no one but the athletes themselves: PEDs. Second, it is not the job of professional athletes to be personal role models for kids. Should they acknowledge their fortunate standings in society and use it for good? Yes, absolutely. But they are in no way bound to it aside from their own job and endorsement risk and it is only our own unrealistic expectations of them that drive that belief forward. Moreover, I believe that the dire need of children to idolize professional athletes to the point of potentially harming themselves is a reflection of an entertainment-driven society where we focus solely on those who provides “must-see TV” as opposed to people whose actions and values warrant the status of being a true role model.

Now that I’ve addressed what seems to be the most common argument, let’s move to another one: why is it any of our business what athletes put in their bodies? We are not their parents, their guardians, or their employers. What right is it of ours to tell someone else how to live their life as long as their actions do not harm us? Most of us would not tolerate complete strangers harshly criticizing how we eat (despite obesity killing 100,000–300,000 Americans a year), socialize (despite alcohol killing 80,000–90,000 Americans per year), or manage our lives (despite suicide killing 30,000 Americans per year). Why should we have any right to criticize someone for using PEDs (deaths directly attributable to PED usage are difficult to find, and any estimates I’ve seen are far lower — often in single digits — than any other notable causes despite estimates that over a million people in the US have usted steroids in their lifetimes).

I also find it very hypocritical that in our pharmaceutically-addicted world, people have no problem criticizing others for using PEDs to get ahead. As I stated before, PED stands for performance-enhancing drug, and doesn’t necessarily have to be a steroid or doping agent. Students or professionals that take Ritalin, Adderral, or other stimulants (of which there are many more than who use steroids), unless done for strict medical reasons, are taking PEDs. Moreover, a large percentage of these people (many of whom are minors) do so without the oversight and consultation of a medical professional and a true understanding of the potential side effects. If someone is willing to take a PED to pass a test or finish a work assignment with a tight deadline, how can we blame an athlete for taking a PED for the chance to make millions of dollars as a result?

To end, I now invite you to (temporarily) ignore my previous points: feel free to imagine that PEDs are very harmful even to the healthiest adults no matter how they are used, that they provide an advantage 1000 times greater than any natural ability, and that all records and historical feats are certified to be 100% clean. Even given those demonstrably false statements, I still contend that using PEDs is a reasonable decision for many high-level athletes. Let’s return to Lance Armstrong as an example:

  • From 1993–1996 Lance Armstrong was a very good but not exceptional peformer in a sport that no one in America cared about (aside from the select few who get up early on Saturdays with an inexplicable desire to wear moose knuckle-inducing clothing)
  • Sometime after Armstrong’s cancer remission, and prior to his first Tour De France win in 1999, Armstrong is rumored to have began doping
  • In 2012, Lance Armstrong is a household name, is worth an estimated $125 million, has mingled with celebrities and presidents, and and created a foundation that has raised more than $300 million and has given faces and hope to the millions of people diagnosed with cancer every year (a disease that kills over 400,000 Americans annually). People may argue that his rise from very good to otherworldly athlete was a result of sheer will and determination, but somehow I doubt they would make the same argument for another athlete who was already top three and became otherworldly a few years later: Barry Bonds.

Admittedly, the vast majority of athletes are not Lance Armstrong. They will never be household names, they will never have massive endorsement deals, they will never have millions of admirers and celebrity friends. But even the lowest-paid professional athletes make more in a year than most people make in a decade. Furthermore, many athletes grew up in poor communities without access to a level of education required to be successful in the world outside of their sport. Some grew up in worlds of violence, abuse, drugs, and neglect. Average people spend their hard-earned money on a 1 in 100 million shot to win the lottery. If you’re an athlete who just can’t quite touch a life of fame and wealth after a lifetime of pain, and the alternatives are largely uninspiring, how can we criticize those who use PEDs when the odds are much better than that?