Despite defending a pretty unpopular proposition ("We should allow performance enhancing drugs in sports"), the consensus seemed to be that our side more than held its own We started the night with just 18 percent of the audience favoring our position. After the debate, we pulled 37 percent, winning all of the undecideds, and even pulling 4 percent from the other side. I’d say the strong showing was far more due to the excellent presentations from my co-panelists—the brave pediatrician and bioethicist Dr. Norman Fost and Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu—than to my red-meat libertarian presentation. I learned quite a bit from them, too. I think the result may also been in part due to the fact that before last night, the crowd had really never been exposed to the arguments in favor of a more open sports system. You certainly never hear them on sports talk radio.
I spoke with one journalist about the spiral into moral panic we seem to have entered with sports and steroids. He said he’s been trying for months to finish a somewhat skeptical story about the issue, but can’t find a doctor who will give him any honest answers. Many doctors, he said, will say off the record that steroids aren’t nearly as damaging as the coverage these last several months would have you believe (not to mention that HGH is almost completely harmless), but now that Congress is demagoguing the issue and the media is in a full-blown feeding frenzy, they fear speaking the truth on the record might damage their reputations and careers.
As for our opponents, Dick Pound is your classic paternalistic zealot. He spent most of his debate time in a fit of question begging. The proposition was whether or not we should change the rules in sports to allow performance enhancing substances. Pound’s response was essentially that we shouldn’t change the rules because the rules themselves are moral—by virtue of the fact that they’re the rules (I may be caricaturing his position, here, but only a little). Over and over, he argued that athletes enter into an agreement with professional sports organizations that they will abide by the rules, and so when they break the rules, they need to be punished. That’s true, but it really had nothing to do with what we were supposed to be debating. Of course, Pound has played a huge role in crafting and enforcing the banned substances rules, so it’s understandable why he’d be so attached to them.
It’s not an uncommon position with illicit drugs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a drug warrior say it would be wrong to legalize marijuana because marijuana use is harmful and immoral. Ask them to explain why it’s harmful and immoral and you’ll often hear that, well, it must be—because it’s illegal.
Dale Murphy struck me as a authentic, decent guy who did play by the rules for all of his career, and is now bothered in part because his stats have been dwarfed by people who didn’t. He also seems genuinely concerned about the state of baseball which, though i disagree with his position, I can respect.
George Michael is a friendly, jovial fellow, but frankly, he’s a little nuts. His presentation was mostly anecdotes. He trotted out the corpses of Lyle Alzado and Ken Caminiti, though there isn’t a doctor in the country who has positively linked either man’s death to the use of steroids (Armen Keteyian, whose Sports Illustrated feature on Alzado triggered a national discussion on sports and steroids, has since admitted he misreported the story, and apologized).
Michael’s presentation was also filled with off-the-record conversations he said he’s had with doctors, athletes, and trainers, which was sort of hard to refute, given that we didn’t know the names, positions, or agendas of the people he was talking about. He closed his presentation by mentioning some athlete he’d known who took steroids. Michael would love to ask this young athlete about the opinions coming from my panel’s side of the debate, he said, "But I can’t, because he’s dead." Michael then added with pronounced sarcasm, "But there’s no provable link to steroids!" and dramatically ripped his speech to shreds in front of the audience.
Michael also took offense to a comparison I made between the relatively modest risks of steroids and HGH and the other health risks other athletes take to excel. The example I used was horseracing, where the athletes subject themselves to sweat boxes, diuretics, eating disorders, and all sorts of other damaging weight-control techniques. Michael, a horse breeder, was offended that I’d make such accusations—until he realized I was talking about the jockeys, not the horses. Oddly, that didn’t seem to bother him as much.
Bob Costas is friendly, surprisingly approachable, and as fanatical and knowledgeable about sports as you might imagine. I thought he was a terrific moderator, despite conceding before the debate that he wasn’t crazy about our position.
I also now have this surreal image forever burned into my head of, backstage, legendary sportscaster Bob Costas holding a small white box, walking up two-time baseball MVP Dale Murphy and saying, "Hey Dale, would you like to try one of my delicious pumpkin cookies?"
In all it was a fun night, and the Rosenkranz foundation did a fantastic job putting the whole thing on.
There should be audio soon, video in about a month, and I’ll post the text of my speech later this week.