Recap of My Debate Last Night

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

My debate last night was a lot of fun. Here’s a write-up from the Associated Press.

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.

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21 Responses to “Recap of My Debate Last Night”

  1. #1 |  Nando | 

    I’m not in favor of allowing performance-enhancing drugs in sports for one reason: the stats. Players who weren’t allowed to use them, or didn’t because they were illegal, will have their stats surpassed by those who use the drugs.

    Unless sports start to keep two sets of stats, which is unlikely, then I will remain against them. I understand that sports go thru changes that don’t appear on the stats (longer seasons, lower pitching mound, rules in football protecting the QB and receivers, etc).

    However, the argument from authority that some people use (they’re bad because they’re illegal; they’re illegal because they’re bad) is not only circular, but moronic.

  2. #2 |  Eric Hanneken | 

    I appreciate the problem of fairness to past players who didn’t have access to performance-enhancing drugs, but where do you draw the line? Past players also had inferior knowledge about nutrition and training methods; inferior training equipment; inferior medicine, technology, and surgical techniques to heal their injuries; and came from a world that was poorer.

  3. #3 |  Bmac | 

    I agree with Nando on the two stats thing. I remember many years ago when I came back to school after summer vacation and all of a sudden about 10 guys were incredibly big and strong. I hadn’t heard of steroids and couldn’t figure out how they did it. I was also in track and saw many sprinters who I could beat before, all of a sudden having tree trunk legs and leaving me in the dust. I don’t know why cheating seems to have become ok in this country, but I think it stinks. Being the best athlete is not based on God’s gifts and how hard you work at it, but is now based on if you get the latest and greatist drug!

  4. #4 |  Michael Pack | 

    Nando,The stats in baseball are all a farce They juiced the ball after the BLACKSOX scandal for more home runs.Yankee stadium was built with a short right field for the Babe.Blacks such as Sachell Paige were banned from the game.In the 60′;s the pitchers mound was changed.In the 70’s ball parks in the NL became huge turf caverns that made hitting deep harder and fielding easier.The DH keep players that can only hit or who’s time has past running up numbers.Baseball has always changed the rules to make more money and give the people what they want.

  5. #5 |  John | 

    It bothers me that allowing the use of these drugs by major league sports results in rewarding those who are willing to risk their health for greater performance. While these drugs can be used responsibly, the temptation will remain to push past responsible use into abuse. I don’t see how major league sports can draw a line for responsible use without shouldering major responsibility and possibly liability should they be wrong.

    As a fan, sports is more than pure spectacle, homeruns and touchdowns. It’s watching the hard work and practice of your favorite team be rewarded with victory. Performance-enhansers allow some to achieve the same goals without the work, but with a willingness to use these drugs. Maybe that’s not immoral, but it does feel hollow and uninteresting.

    People should be free to use these drugs, responsibly and irresponsibly, but I don’t want to be responsible for encouraging these athletes to risk their health. Some professions demand risk, but it should always be a goal of employer and employee to reduce the risk as much as is reasonable. It shouldn’t be an issue for the government, but it is completely appropriate for these league commisioners to decide that they don’t want to encourage the risk. Maybe they are overreacting to the risks of these drugs, but that’s their decision, and these players agreed to abide by that upon entering the league.

  6. #6 |  Michael Pack | 

    John,does it bother you many players have career threating injury’s and drugs like HGH can help them heal faster or better?It seems sport fans love to set down rules to follow that do not take it consideration of the player’s health.Take the NFL.Average careers are about 4-5 years.Many have life long injury’s and we toss them aside when they no longer help the ‘team’.Many of the’ fans’ take drugs for everything from depression and allergies to getting a hard on then demand ‘their’ sports be clean.Its enough to make me puke.

  7. #7 |  andyinsdca | 

    No matter what I thought of the issue before, this morning I saw a clip of George Mitchell at the hearing and he dragged out the old saw of “it’s for the children.”

    Fark him and his farking report now. I don’t care if every baseball player takes every steroid known to man and become the size of Godzilla and they need to move the fences back to 900 ft.

  8. #8 |  David Chesler | 

    What Eric said. See my blog post about this from last June — maybe everybody should have asterisks.

    I think the reason performance enhancing drugs get such a strong reaction is they belie the message “Drugs are bad, mkay”, that drugs will cause you to melt into your couch.

    See also Stephen Jay Gould’s famous analysis of why there are no more .400 hitters, for instance here.

    When you do that, you realize the following: The average batting average has never changed. It’s always been around 260. It fluctuates back and forth, but it stays around 260. And that’s not an absolute measure like running a mile or throwing a javelin; 260 is a balance between hitting and pitching. The fact that it’s stayed 260 only shows that the balance has been maintained. I say it’s been maintained as everyone has gotten better. Hitting’s gotten better. Pitching’s gotten better. Everything’s gotten better. The balance remains the same. Now as everything gets better, the variation shrinks. That’s all that happens. There’s a right wall of human limits based on how tall we are and our musculature. Nobody’s ever going to hit a ball a mile or pitch it 200 miles an hour.

    OK, drugs can increase our height and musculature, but for a batter to do as well as those in the past, he must do it against better pitching and fielding.

    Does any particular improvement, any particular drug, improve hitting more than it improves pitching and fielding, or vice versa? According to Gould’s analysis the balance was maintained throughout the 20th century. There are plenty of other non-drug variables, as Michael listed.

  9. #9 |  ZappaCrappa | 

    I’m still trying to figure out why in the hell congress is involved. And why just baseball? I’m sure that congress has nothing better to do…except possibly vote another pay raise for themselves.

  10. #10 |  RandMan | 

    John said-

    Performance-enhansers allow some to achieve the same goals without the work ….

    John, with all due respect, your assertion isn’t true. What makes the steroids work and allow the user to achieve the desired results IS work. Taking steroids w/o a vigorous training regimine is meaningless. Steroids work at repairing the muscles more quickly after a work-out, allowing the user to get back in the gym more frequently for more meaningful work-outs. More meaningful work-outs condensed over a shorter time frame results in rapid muscle growth. IOW, steroids just make the whole process more efficeint.

    No offense, but your comment confirms in my mind that ignorance about how steroids work is what is fueling this witch-hunt.

  11. #11 |  Nick T | 


    The stats are generally only meaningful in baseball where the history, lore and records mean so much in our national consciousness.

    However, most “experts” seem to account for the fact that you have to judge a player by the era in hich he played. Many new stats are better as assessing great pitchers who played during “live ball” eras and great hitters who played when offense was scarce. for example, anyone who argues against Babe Ruth as the greatest power hitter ever by saying Aaron had more HRs, will inevitably and quickly be met with the fact that Ruth would often hit more homeruns than entire teams and lead the majors by some 30 HRs.

    Plus, an argument against distorted stats is an argument against ALL new technology that gives players advantages old players didn’t have. For exmaple, Manny Ramirez supposedly watches hours of highlights of the pitcher he is facing each night. Ted Wiliams couldn’t do that! Is Manny cheating? should his stats be erased or discounted? Of course I’m not saying this is the same as performance enhancers, but when your argument is strictly based on stat distortion, the distinction becomes irrelevant.

    Radley, horse-racing is a great point. Don’t forget the story of Earl Campbell and other football players who are hobbled at middle-age.

  12. #12 |  Michael Costello | 

    If you’re ever in Austin, you can listen to 590 Klbj’s evening sports show hosted by Jeff Ward (as well as Ed Clements) who probably would advocate an open sports system to some extent. He’s at the very least not a pollyanna about the existence of the performance enhancement in the Business of pro-sports.

    He also does a fair bit of libertarian leaning political commentary in the afternoons.

  13. #13 |  Guido Sarducci | 

    “As a fan, sports is more than pure spectacle, homeruns and touchdowns. It’s watching the hard work and practice of your favorite team be rewarded with victory. Performance-enhansers allow some to achieve the same goals without the work, but with a willingness to use these drugs. Maybe that’s not immoral, but it does feel hollow and uninteresting. ”

    This is one of the arguments that drives me crazy. It is so ignorant to the actual chemistry of PE drugs. It’s not as if you shoot some steroids in your ass and suddenly you are able to beat Mike Tyson down in one punch. These drugs enable you to train harder and recouperate faster. Which is why they were originally used to heal injuries. Do some reading on how these drugs work before making a comment like this.
    Now back to baseball. Hitting a fast ball is a skill plain and simple. Yes, with steroids use COMBINED with intense training (work) you can gain more power and thus hit the ball farther causing more homeruns. This does not detract from the skill involved in connecting with the ball in the first place. If taking steroids instantly makes you the greatest player everyone in MLB would be hitting homeruns like Bonds (lets get real, I would bet that MOST MLB players are juicing they just didn’t get caught).
    That said, I would second the rest of the comments I’ve read here and would like to add one more point to the pot:
    I want to see athletes performing as close to superhuman as possible because I find that more entertaining. Period. I could care less if it’s bad for their health or not. But hey, I’m one of those crazy libertarians.

  14. #14 |  Kim Teeple | 

    Radley, It’s a bit comical that you’re defending drug use in sports and the Ads by Google at the top of your site are for Drug Rehab services.

    Why do humans need to “improve” their performance? So, they can compete in an industry where they otherwise might only be average? I suppose if it’s worth the money, it’s their body. Just as long and I don’t wind up paying for it in health bills 30 years from now because we DON’T have enough data about steriod use over a long period of time.

  15. #15 |  TC | 

    Zappa I’ve often wondered the same thing.

    How about the politicos realized how a much larger audience they could draw using sports as a backdrop. Since their own lives are such a mess and most could not throw a baseball from the mound and even get to home plate, they choose to attach themselves to those that can?

    Like living a sports life without actually having to do it vicariously through those that can. Yet they desire to see them as pure as fresh fallen snow, and not soiled as they themselves are. Somehow seeking purification of themselves by forcing others, their chosen sports hero’s, to be pure.

    I think that currently roids are getting a very bad rap as Dr.’s across the country are injecting folks with them every day for a variety of muscle and joint challenges. They help by promoting cell generation in an injury site and I’d bet in many other ways as well. Such use is not the same as I’m sure some folks have used them and possibly continue to use them. But some folks use heroin all the time as well, not good for them either.

    Oh and if they are so dangerous for athletes then why are the cop groups being left out of the discussion? Oh but I see they are onto the singers and band players though!

  16. #16 |  Mike | 

    I’m not surprised Dale Murphy came off as someone you could disagree with agreeably. I grew up in Atlanta with him as my idol. He continues to be a role model — even tough I disagree with him on many things.

  17. #17 |  Wesley | 

    I personally couldn’t care less whether “performance enhancing drugs” are allowed in sports or not. But that decision should be made by the private organizations in charge of those sports – it’s none of Congress’s business. It definitely should not be a crime to use those drugs.

  18. #18 |  paul | 

    The ignorance on steroid use in sports is astonishing.

    I’ve been in the iron game, both bodybuilding and powerlifting, for over 10 years. There are important things for everyone to know.

    1) WAY more people are using these drugs than you think.
    2) All drug testing is a farce, including the Olympics, the NCAA, and the NFL. 15 minutes and a dial up internet connection is all you need to beat a “random” test.
    3) Anabolic/Androgenic Steroids are not anywhere near as harmful to adult males as you think. They can be very harmful to adolescents and women, but both of those groups can also use some drugs safely.
    4) These drugs are not magic. There are lots of unimpressive people who are terrible athletes using these drugs hoping they will make up for lack of effort. The greats in sport are not great because of any drugs; they would be greats regardless of the levelness of the playing field.
    5) There are already people in the baseball hall of fame who used these drugs. You’ll just have to trust me on this.

    And this all comes from someone who competes in a drug tested organization. I have never used illegal performance enhancers, and I think they are overused by people who have no reason to use them… but it’s their choice.

    I did have a no carb Rockstar the other day before I went to the gym. It was indeed a performance enhancer.

  19. #19 |  brian | 

    I am a believer in steroid use in sports. I feel that it should be the athletes decision to make, whether or not to take performance enhancers. After all doesn’t it make for more entertaining sports for the viewers? If an athlete wants to use steroids he should know all of the risks and side effects. If he or she is still comfortable using them with that in mind, they should, to me be allowed to take them. Even if they are not to be used, I do not believe if they take them that they should be discredited like they are today.

  20. #20 |  Spotes Notes, 1.16.08: Sporano Named Dolphins Head Coach, Chow Fired; Pacman Set Up?; Grandstand-ing in Congress; Igor the Ego; The Real PED Conversation Yesterday | Sports On My Mind | 

    […] with the pros and cons of PEDs in New York, moderated by Bob Costas. The major figure for the regulation of steroids in sports was Dr. Norman Fost, while former World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) chief Dick Pound was the leader […]

  21. #21 |  Karla Higgins | 

    I am a viewer of watching the great debate last nite with Obama and McCain. First off I just want to mention that I would not vote for a President that comes across as very angry and about ready to explode. MCCAIN is that person wanting to become President.
    We need changes made pertaining to production jobs,(needed), schools updated and no child left behind. I could go on and on and on. I am newly retired, and thinking my 401k is just about half it’s size, now, and I believe there is STILL no end in sight!! I can not imagine of going back to work, just because some big CEO’s for the banking systems in our country are getting a bail out from the government. WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE GOING TO HELP ME!!!
    Have we forgotten the middle-class., excuse me, there is not much middle-class anymore. Where are the people going to speak up for people who are getting laid off, businesses closing, higher health care costs and etc..etc..etc..???
    WE NEED CHANGE, and not more of the same with McCain. I have almost given up on our politics, and government, but, as a right I have as a US citizen born into a working family, and carried the same ideals, I WILL GO VOTE because I believe we can still change this mess we are all waking up to.
    Where can we march for change, are we allowed FREEDOM OF SPEECH anymore?? Please stand up for what you believe, and believe in America and bring back our dignity and our pride in our coutry, and get rid of the shame it has been in, the last 8 years.