By way of defending himself, Tommy Fitton, who, perhaps, did more than anyone else to propagate the use of steroids, once rhetorically asked, “Life isn’t fair, so why should sports be fair?.”

Is there any field, outside of athletics, that condemns the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)? The only one I can think of, off hand, is the use of Adderall, which apparently is very popular among college students pulling all-nighters before exams. We may not condemn a doctor or lawyer who takes a drug that increases focus, but we are quite rightly concerned about the short and long-term impacts that this drug may have on our still impressionable youths.

I think we condemn the use of PEDs by Lance Armstrong and (allegedly) Barry Bonds, and so many other fallen or unknown heroes, because we still believe that sports are supposed to be pure. “Earth is a task garden,” G.K. Chesterton observed; “heaven is a playground.” Like childhood, sports is not supposed to be subject to falls from grace.

Getting Back to Reality

Were it but true? Wouldn’t it be nice if Fitton was wrong and Armstrong and (allegedly) Bonds were just cynical outliers? Exceptions to following the rules. The reality, however, is that sports has become a task garden that has increasingly little do with playgrounds.

How can we condemn them for using PEDs when sports has so much to do with work, and so little to do with play?

Childhood innocence?

Right from the beginning, many kids are forced to take up sports, compelled to follow their coach’s orders, benched when they don’t, scrutinized if not yelled at by their parents, and often forced to choose one sport. It used to be that sports started out as play and naturally evolved into work, if and only if a child chose to take it seriously. Now it is mostly just serious, like school, right from the beginning.

The lucky, promising athletes advance. The less talented losers are told that they are surplus to requirements. Never mind that they might be maturing slower, The Youth Sports Industrial Complex, which is driven by revenue generation and the promise of college scholarships, kicks them out of the system in order to focus on the few. The lucky few now know, without a doubt, that sports is not play and that this is not a game.

Higher Education?

The pressure, of course, just continues to rise. There is the scholarship, which allows some athletes to raise their family’s socio-economic status. The public acclaim, which is an end-all to Generation Like, and the pressure to be a star and to win, best of all to be the star on the the championship winning team. The latter requires so much dedication and so many sacrifices that the conventional moral restraints often go out the window.

Performance enhancing drugs are just one part an already adulturated equation. By college, most if not all scholarship athletes have already been taught to the gray arts of gamesmanship. such as time-wasting, how to intimidate opponents and deceive referees and commit deliberate fouls. The coaches, who are supposed to be paragons of virtues, verbally abuse referees more than criminals do arresting police officers, and renege on promises they made to athletes by moving to another school if the price is right.

Turning Professional

You know how this all ends. Pro sports have more pressure, more money, and are more cut throat. Not surprisingly, nice guys usually finish last. It would be easy to condemn sports, but it is really not more unfair, maybe even a little fairer, than the rest of life. At least it has a level if somewhat ruthless playing field. Can you say that about the banking industry in the wake of the real estate meltdown or our justice system, which is really just a legal system? Or our political system? Talk about lack of sportsmanship.

Come to think about it, wouldn’t it be surprising if only a small number of athletes used PEDs?

My point is not that we should just get over our outrage and accept the apparently ubiquitous use of PEDs. My point is that we are never going to make any serious headway addressing this issue unless we acknowledge that sports, as a general rule, falls far short of promoting fair play and moral development, and concede that sports mirrors many of society’s failings.

Life is not fair, but sports could be. But realizing this potential will require deep examination and changes in youth and scholastic sports, and a conscious effort to address the harm done by commercialization.

–Ken Pendleton