Doping in sports: changing the nature of the product

In society, virtue is supposed to be crowned with success. Hard work should produce accomplishments and accomplishments should bring recognition and respect. It does not always work out that way. A sport is a circumscribed area of controlled striving and, in a limited sense, is a model of a good society, where rules are respected and excellence is rewarded. Part of the pleasure of sport is in savoring this sense of a small, well-ordered universe. Of course, sport includes some young men and some not-so-young men who have never grown up, who are self-absorbed, willful, vain and arrogant, as headlong in satisfying their appetites as in their athletic competition. But precisely because competition at the pinnacle of American sport offers many temptations, and because physical abilities can carry an athlete far without a commensurate portion of good character, the achievements of the genuine grown-ups, of whom Gwynn is one, are all the more to be admired. – George Will, Men at Work, pp. 225-226

When the Lance Armstrong doping scandal broke, a lot of people in my circles and some higher-profile writers suggesting that the cycling authorities (and the authorities in other sports) should just legalize doping. If it is so common and so hard to detect, why not just put it out in the open? It has an appeal to it, sure, especially perhaps to economists. But I don’t like it.

My first criticism of this attitude, which is the shorter one so I’ll get it out of the way, is that if an offense is difficult (but not impossible) to detect, you can still get the desired deterrent effect by raising the penalty. If you have a 1% chance of getting caught using PEDs a $100 fine is laughable, but a lifetime ban may still deter you.

But why make actions like these offenses in the first place? I noticed that the people who offered this solution were not usually fans of the sports in question. I didn’t have an eloquent response, as I only read Will’s book after the whole scandal went public. Allowing doping, especially with products like EPO that really are game-changers in cycling, changes the nature of the product being offered. People have a willingness to pay to see “a small, well-ordered universe” of “controlled striving” where “virtue…is crowned with success”. Not everybody has a willingness to pay for the various flavors of this product—cycling, football, baseball, etc.—but the ones who do want a certain thing that doping fundamentally alters. They want to see hard work and attention to detail lead to success. True, some fans just want to see big splashy achievements, the kind doping produces, but I don’t think they’re in the majority and they, too, seem to feel cheated when they find out the cause. Nobody in the baseball world feels the same kind of admiration for Barry Bonds’ home run record as they feel for Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays.


One thought on “Doping in sports: changing the nature of the product

  1. Pingback: Ancient methods for modern times: Team suspensions in cycling - The Calculus of Dissent

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