Monday, August 07, 2006

Should We Scrap Anti-Doping Measures?

I am not your average sports minded guy. Most of the time I couldn’t tell you which professional sport is in season, let alone tell you anything about the teams and players. But you’d have to have been living in a cave for the past decade or so not to know about the huge drug problem in professional (and college, and amateur, and high school, etc.) sports.

We’re not talking about players doing hallucinogenic drugs. We’re talking about performance enhancing drugs. Today it is standard practice for athletes to give samples that can be tested for unapproved substances. And in long-term events, like cycling events that last several days, participants often give a number of samples at various intervals. This is all done mainly to ensure fairness, although, there is also a concern (even if it is only litigiously based) for athlete safety.

But athletes and their handlers always seem to be one step ahead of the enforcers. There is a continual pursuit to find an undetectable performance enhancing treatment that can give the participant an edge over his/her competition. And the practice seems to be extremely broad based. The sentiment seems to be, “anything to win.”

Yesterday’s Deseret News included a strange article by editorialist Lee Benson on this subject. Benson, obviously smarting from U.S. cyclist Floyd Landis’ (apparently impending) disqualification from the Tour de France due to abnormally high amounts of testosterone measured after his stunning ride in Stage 17 of this year’s race, wants the whole anti-doping movement to dry up and blow away. This is strange coming from Mr. Benson. Somehow I doubt he’d jump on George Soros’ bandwagon to legalize illegal drugs for the general populace.

Benson notes that it is increasingly difficult to find sports participants that don’t use performance enhancing drugs. His solution is to make a rule against it, and then leave it up to each participant’s personal honor. Let them wear a badge of personal shame if they violate this rule, but scrap the whole anti-doping program. Benson suggests that this system couldn’t possibly produce worse outcomes than our current method.

There’s one problem with Benson’s proposal. As demonstrated by the actions of athletes and their handlers, the underlying culture that would make it work simply doesn’t exist. Shame and dishonor are largely absent in our sports culture when it comes to personal integrity. The only honor is winning and the incidental endorsements and sponsorships (position, wealth, fame) that go along with it. How many of our top athletes care one iota about performing “clean?” How many of the fans care?

This problem goes deeper than just sports. Its manifestation in athletics is merely a symptom of its pervasiveness in our culture. School and college teachers continually note dramatic increases in cheating. Students don’t see it as any big deal. They consider it part of the cost of getting ahead. Our Congress is rife with a whole slew of scandals, but it turns out that this is just the way business is done inside the DC Beltway. Employers grapple with qualification falsification on resumes.

Institutions respond by trying to teach ethics, but even they convey dual messages, because administrators and managers (at least occasionally) act in ways other than what is taught—even quite publicly. And then they defend their actions, even litigiously.

We once had a culture of honor, where personal integrity (or at least the public perception of it) was highly prized. In fact, it was so highly prized, that insults regularly resulted in violence ranging from fist fights to duals to wars. I suspect that few today would wish to return to that era, given its incident violence and aggression. But we might want to have a culture where internal integrity was important—a culture where it was counted highly valuable to know inside that your personal integrity is intact regardless of the opinions of others.

I don’t know how you go from “I don’t care about your definition of ethical behavior—I’ve got the cash (or the title, or the power, or the babes, or whatever)” to quietly valuing personal integrity. Our culture seems to be headed in quite the opposite direction, and current ‘solutions’ don’t seem to be helping much.

1 comment:

That One Guy said...

ummm, yeah - Benson's thoughts here are wasted column inches. There isn't an industry, inside sports or outside sports, that exhibits personal accountability and integrity. Not one.

It's about me and the money. That's all.

"Follow the money." That's something I say OFTEN, both in business and in sports.