God, Steroids, and Bo Jackson

Tonight I caught ESPN’s “30 for 30” on Bo Jackson: You Don’t Know Bo.

It was very good, as are all the 30 for 30 specials I’ve seen.  Anyway, I was struck by a comment halfway though about how if Bo Jackson had burst upon the scene 10-15 years later, everyone would have thought that he was on steroids.  This comment–probably true–was followed by a bunch of professional athletes from football and baseball attesting vehemently to the fact that Bo Jackson never used steroids (something Jackson himself confirms).   Several of these pro luminaries emphasize that Bo Jackson was just a ‘natural phenomenon,’ the beneficiary of more ‘God-given talent’ than these athletes–blessed with plenty of natural talent themselves–had ever seen.  (These remarks seem especially a propos in Jackson’s case, since, apparently, he was not a great believer in the importance of training or practice (ironic given his significance for Nike’s marketing campaigns)).

Listening to these athletes rave about Bo Jackson’s God-given talent, and insisting that Bo never used anything, it was clear that these athletes meant to communicate the following: Bo merits our adulation and respect.  Unlike steroid users, Bo’s accomplishments were fully attributable to him.  This portion of the program raises in a particularly clear way, I think, a question that has occurred to me often since steroid use has become such a prominent issue in professional sports.

Put bluntly, the question is why we praise and admire athletes who perform at high levels on the basis of ‘God-given talent’ while excoriating athletes who perform at high levels on the basis of ‘God-given-talent’ plus performance-enhancing drugs.  Here, I think, are some common but inadequate answers to this question:

A1: Because PED-Users (hereafter, PUs) are cheaters.

Ok, A1 is true, but unhelpful.  PUs are cheaters because the rules in professional sports prohibit the use of PEDs.  The initial question can be reformulated as a question about why we should have such rules.  Now there are reasonable answers to this question that appeal to health risks associated with PEDs and the need to minimize pressures on athletes to use PEDs in order to keep up, etc., but rule-utilitarian considerations cannot explain the vitriol so many have toward PUs, so I’ll leave these consequentialist considerations to the side.  Granted, there is certainly something objectionable about competitors who deliberately break the rules of their respective competitions, but our dislike of  ‘cheaters’ in this sense is not, it seems to me, the same (qualitatively or quantitatively) as the dislike we have for PUs.

A2.  Because it’s not the athlete who does those spectacular things, it’s the drugs.

I hear versions of this quite a bit, but I must confess that I’m not sure I know what, exactly, is being claimed.  It could mean something like this: The athlete couldn’t have done X had he not been using drugs.

If that’s the claim, though, why do we condemn the PU?  We don’t condemn athletes like Bo Jackson on the grounds that he couldn’t have done such great things in sport if he had had less natural talent.  In short, this explanation just assumes the significance of the distinction between natural talent and PEDs.

A3.  Because PUs aren’t responsible for their athletic exploits in the way that natural athletes like Bo Jackson are.

This answer is usually coupled with some account of a particular athlete’s grueling training regimen, endless hard work, etc., etc., and the account is juxtaposed against, implicitly if not explicitly, with a picture of some lazy dope skipping work-outs and plunging a needle into his ass instead.

But there are two reasons why I find this answer to the question unsatisfying.  First, my understanding is that PEDs only really help athletes who train very, very hard.  Use of PEDs is no substitute for hard work–at most, it significantly increases the benefits of such hard work.  Second, PUs are, arguably, more responsible for their accomplishments in the sense that their accomplishments are more closely tied to their choices/decisions–a common way of assessing responsibility (in this case, the choice/decision to use PEDs). I’m not suggesting that that’s a reason to applaud PUs, just that it makes me think ‘responsibility’ really isn’t the issue here.

Do I have an answer?  I’m not sure, but I thought I’d like to run this by OPers.  My thought is that we–as a culture, I guess, or maybe even as a species–are naturally drawn to and fascinated by the freaks among us.  The math prodigy, the grotesque, the guy who can hit 500 foot home runs, etc., never fail to capture our collective attention.  One reason to abhor the prevalence and effectiveness of PEDs is that it makes identifying the real, genuine, 100% authentic freaks more difficult, or perhaps undermines their freakishness by narrowing the gap between the best of the very rare and the truly freakish.

In short, my thought is that the reason we condemn PUs so vociferously is that we resent them screwing with and upsetting our natural/cultural interest in identifying the Freaks among us.

(‘Freak’ may be the wrong word, and it’s obviously a concept in need of some analysis, but I’ve think I’ve written enough to elicit some responses.  –It’s a blog, so what do you want?)


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8 Responses to God, Steroids, and Bo Jackson

  1. Josh says:

    David –

    I tend to agree with you that most discussion about PED’s and athletes are ridiculously question-begging and riddled with cliches (that’s probably true of the rest of our discussions about athletes, come to think about it – have you ever listened to a sports call-in show’s discussion about whether or not a city or state legislative body should purchase a $500 new stadium for a team?).

    I’ve actually often thought that – subject to constraints that protect the safety of audiences (like those “don’t try this at home” messages at the bottom of car ads) -PED’s should be fine for consenting adults to use. Granted, allowing them would probably cause a lot of problems given the enormous financial incentives professional sports stardom produces for unsafe behavior on the part of a lot of aspiring youth athletes. But I think that has more to do with an extremely perverse incentives structure, and so is more of a social-justice/inequality issue. The PED’s problem is just a symptom of that larger issue. If that average sports stars wasn’t the object of so much money and adulation, PED’s wouldn’t be in such demand. But then – also there wouldn’t be so many kids being peddled the dream of becoming an NBA star, there wouldn’t be so much over-consumption by high schools and colleges on athletic programs, wouldn’t be cities and states building stadiums for teams, etc.

    So I guess what I’m saying is, PED’s (and our feelings about them) are only a big deal because the professional sports industry is insane, and very obviously radically unjust for the same reason that any other system that allows enormous inequalities to persist and develop is. I know that’s a much bigger claim that can be disputed – my point is just that the real locus of the dispute may lie elsewhere.

    As for why we feel so strongly about this – your preferences-for-freakishness idea is interesting, but I have another. We often react very strongly to rule-breakers even when the rules they are breaking have little rational basis. Sometimes we react even MORE strongly when that’s the case. I’m reminded of John McWhorter’s talk about the disgust that tends to accompany alleged violations of “grammatical rules.” We all have been subject to them from an early age, have little understanding of their basis (or, have little understanding that they HAVE no basis), and so in fact are made much more angry when they’re violated than we are when other more rational rules are broken. I think it’s fair to say, for example, that a lot of people would be more bothered by someone saying “I ain’t care about no traffic laws!” than discovering that that person was going 60 in a 55, even though the latter is clearly dangerous in a way that the former is not.

    That’s sort of an odd example I know – I think I’m just trying to say that the intuition that produces the disapproval does not always emerge from rational/ethically significant sources.

  2. Josh says:

    Something else I meant to include that seems relevant here, one of the most striking lines from Infinite Jest:

    “…talent is sort of a dark gift… talent is its own expectation: it is there from the start and either lived up to or lost.”

    IJ is in a lot of ways a meditation on what this feels like from the inside of the “talented” individual, but the pathology created for the “fans” of that talent is in many ways on the table too – “our natural/cultural interest in identifying the Freaks among us” is a huge theme of IJ. It also reminds me of my old post about Doestoevsky and the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode called “The Freak Book”.

  3. Nates says:

    The love of freakdom angle is interesting. And it’s a preoccupation that goes way back. (Much of the Iliad is spent cataloging the freakish talents of various heroes and gods.) So I definitely think there’s something to it.

    In general, I find it hard to get clear on what’s going on in this area of cultural life, since we seem to equally value effort and natural talent. And that’s weird, because the two qualities seem at odds with one another! But maybe what we like most are athletes who have one but lack the other. So, we love hearing about the gritty determination of a (pre-gambling) Pete Rose, who was drafted late and fought his way to the top. And we also love hearing about Babe Ruth, drinking all night and then stumbling to the park to hit a few more dingers. The Joey Vottos of the world, talented and hard-working, just don’t excite us as much.

    But back to the discussion. No one cares about athletes taking supplements and drinking gatorade, which also serve to blur the freak/non-freak distinction. And no one gets all that upset about corked bats either — it’s embarrassing, but more in a cute, funny way. So I don’t think David’s distinction fully explains what’s going on with steroids. But then I wonder if there’s anything more to explain it. Perhaps our society has just arbitrarily decided (through some random historical process) that protein powder is OK, but human growth hormone isn’t.

    I’ll admit that I find this non-explanation very dissatisfying. A part of me insists that there must be some particular reason we disapprove of steroids. But then I think about our ongoing war on drugs, and what seems to be the completely arbitrary distinction between good alcohol and bad pot, and I’m inclined to think that something similar may be happening in sports.

  4. David says:

    Here’s Michael Sandel’s take on this issue, from his well-known article “The Case Against Perfection”:

    The real problem with genetically altered athletes is that they corrupt athletic competition as a human activity that honors the cultivation and display of natural talents.

    That sounds a bit like my view, at least insofar as there’s an implication that the vitriolic condemnation of drug use in professional sports derives from the sense that some important human activity is being messed with–in this case, the activity is honoring natural talent, or, as I would say, finding the freaks.

  5. Josh says:

    “Finding the freaks” is different from “honoring natural talent” and also seems to me much more plausible as an explanation – we *describe* it as “honoring natural talent” but probably really mean we’re interested in freaks.

    It might seem obvious, but Sandel’s appear to “nature” is of course, like almost all such appeals, suspect. There is nothing obviously more “natural” about a child training his/her whole life, being held out of the normal educational process to some extent, etc. etc. to become a tennis star, let’s say, than there is about the use of PED’s.

    If “nature” were just “how any athlete is without any intervention” (especially since sports are inherently social – no one emerges from the womb with a talent for baseball) then it wouldn’t be any more acceptable to tolerate all the bizarre social modifications made to the lives of those who seek athletic stardom than it would be to give them PED’s.

    It’s just two different kinds of intervention with “nature” – one is social and one is pharmacological.

    Of course, we can just arbitrarily say extra training, coaching, summer camps, equipment, video analysis, etc. etc. are “natural” in a way that PED’s are not, but it will be hard to come up with any non-circular definition of “nature” that doesn’t just end up being “everything that’s not PED’s.”

    I don’t mean this just a a critique of the use of the word “nature” – it’s also a critique of our intuitions here. In general, sports culture DOES NOT see all that extra stuff as unnatural (except for some old curmudgeons) – but it does see PED’s as being so.

    In other words, this is just another instance where an appeal to “nature” turns out to be incoherent, even though it is firmly embedded in a widely shared intuition. That’s why as silly is it sounds, the freaks explanation seems better to me. It’s much more plausible to say it’s the extreme deviations from the mean that fascinate us for whatever reason. Perhaps PED availability would de-romanticize the freaks among us, since it makes it easier for any of us to become one. But then – so do sports camps, etc., which may be why sports has steadily become more of a technocratic business and less of the sort of spectacle it was for the Greeks, or at least our idealized vision of them.

  6. Dan Tanna says:

    I have news for you guys. There are no supermen. They don’t exist, as much as you would like them to. Humans are not born with freakishly more athletic ability than anybody who was born in the past.
    I find the idea that Bo Jackson was clean laughable. How could he be 240 pounds, and run a 4.12 40 yard dash?
    Everybody thought Lance Armstrong was just a genetically lucky superman who just had the natural ability to dominate cycling. I knew he was cheating, because the limits of human athletic achievement have been long established.
    When a 100 meter dash contestant shatters an existing record by half a second like Usain Bolt did a couple of years back, something is wrong. Bolt is not a superman. He is a extremely gifted sprinter who cheats to run as fast as he does.
    We for some reason always want to believe in superman. I did for years, until I realize what was going on.
    It does not take much research to see how rampant cheating is in all sports, believe it or not. There is too much money, fame, and glory at stake to leave this to chance.
    There are no supermen. Only super performance enhanced men.
    If Bo Jackson was clean, I would eat my hat.

    • Rickey Dawe says:

      I knew a kid when I was growing up who happened to be black, we lived on the same street, and went to the same school in an area where there weren’t many black people. We played hoop together all the time, and once in awhile we’d reenact some WWF. He would take it easy on me when wrestling, but whooped me at b-ball. He was a physical freak. We were twelve, but he was built like an 18 year old. I know he didn’t lift weights at home, and to my knowledge he didn’t lift at school, and I absolutely know he wasn’t using drugs. It was all genes. He just showed up and was stronger and faster than every other kid out there. By all accounts that I’ve heard Bo never lifted weights regularly if at all. It would make no sense for him to take PEDs if he didn’t train rigorously. They don’t work by themselves. They don’t help your hand/eye coordination to help you hit a fastball. I believe Bo was just a country strong boy who had been competing since an early age and was just made for it.

      Need more proof? Why do athletes take PEDs? They do it to win and make more money. If Bo was in it just for money than he would’ve accepted Steinbrenner’s. 250,000 and joined the Yankees out of HS. But he declined because he wanted to be the first in his family to attend college. Believe what you want but I think Bo had too much integrity. It wasn’t a big deal to him he just did it.

  7. juan says:

    My attention was just drawn to this post, as someone commented on it recently. I think A2 is on the right track, maybe a mixture of A2 and A1 is the right explanation for our rejection of PED’s. David might still be right about the ultimate reason why we care so much about this, but his point of view is consistent with A2.
    Here is what I think A2 is about, without counterfactuals: we want to measure the performance of the natural human body, not that of PED’s. So in the case of tainted performances, the problem is that we don’t know what to attribute the performance to: the athlete or the drug. This explanation does not make use of counterfactual statements.
    Why are we interested in measuring the performance of the human body? One explanation was suggested by David.

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