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?)