A-Rod isn’t a cheater

Taking steroids is only natural. It's an extension of our technological lives. So let's come down from our romantic soapboxes.

Topics: Environment, Science

Every day we read disclosures of widespread doping in baseball and other sports. Barry Bonds‘ suspected drug use cast a dark shadow over his successful pursuit of Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. Alex Rodriguez, the heir apparent we had hoped might one day surpass Bonds in home runs, has admitted to taking banned drugs himself. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, ever responsive to the cry for blood, is reported to be considering stripping Bonds of the home-run title and restoring it to Aaron, even in the absence of any public demonstration that Bonds is guilty as charged. The most recent revelations indicate that Roger Clemens, the most consistently dominant pitcher of his era, was a doper.

Against the background of these revelations, of the nearly universal disappointment, outrage and wringing of hands, it is worthwhile to pause and ask ourselves, just what is it about the use of drugs to elevate performance that so many of us find so singularly offensive?

Where do we stop and where does our technology begin?

This fundamental question about our nature, however surprising it may seem, is the central challenge raised by the revelation of widespread drug use in sports. Our repugnance toward doping is an expression of discomfort with our increasing difficulty cleaving to the idea that an action is ours only if it is “natural,” if it flows from a source within us — the soul, perhaps, or the brain.

We’re angry at athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs because, in our heart of hearts, we believe these drugs are not performance enhancing. What the drugs do, we feel, is make it look like you’re performing when you’re not. So the athlete who homers thanks to drugs is telling a lie. He’s pretending to do something he can’t do. He’s a fake. From this traditional standpoint, the doped-up athlete is a kind of cyborg or monster; he’s not one of us; he’s subject to alien influence.

The problem with this romantic conception of ourselves as islands of self-determination is that it isn’t true. We are all technologically enhanced. In a way, we are all cyborg-like monsters. Perhaps you wear contact lenses, consume vitamins and antidepressants, or enjoy the benefits of fancy dental work. But what are these technologies other than tools for enhancing performance in daily life? Even the food we eat is the result of thousands of years of agricultural engineering. The more recent advent of genetically modified crops amplifies this ancient and enduring fact.

Tools and equipment — the dwellings we live in, the clothes we wear, the cars we move around in — are prosthetic extensions of ourselves. We don’t use them merely to achieve familiar goals. Our use of tools radically changes us. Monkeys using rakes have been shown to have enlarged cortical representations of their hands and arms. But it isn’t only our bodies that extend into and get made up out of the world around us. The same is true of our minds. We can think about prime numbers and places we’ve never been because we deploy language and other shared, evolved symbolic systems to do so. We “know how to find our way” by relying on landmarks, signs, maps and GPS systems. We keep track of the time on our wrists. Each of us is the product of a genetic endowment and a lived history. What is an education but the R&D stage of our own production?

So where do we stop? Where does the alien “external” world begin? Not at the skin, this much is sure. Human beings are and always have been a technological animal. Ours is a history of shared technological innovation. Sharpened stones and cave paintings show up 80,000 years ago in the archaeological record. We are natural by design; we are designed by nature and culture.

Once this basic fact about ourselves is clearly in focus, we are forced to acknowledge that using of steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs does not cross a bright line when it comes to personal responsibility. The athlete’s reliance on steroids is no different in principle from a reliance on training techniques, newly designed footwear, sunglasses, mitts, nutrition or the computer-graphic analysis of plays. We are what we do and are never entirely self-sufficient in determining the scope of what we can do.

The fact that Rodriguez might not have achieved what he has without steroids no more undercuts his ownership of his achievements than the fact that he wouldn’t have achieved what he did without loving parents. Likewise, Bonds hit all his home runs, regardless of what Selig feels called upon to pronounce. The fact that drugs might have enabled him to do this no more undermines the authenticity of this achievement than the fact that Tour de France cyclist can do what he does thanks only to the latest in bicycle engineering, well-organized team strategy and, yes, steroids. The achievements are his, even if he managed them thanks to his reliance on the latest tools.

Some might object that we don’t need to turn to philosophy and cognitive science to explain why doping in sports makes us angry. Cheating offends our sense of right and wrong. But this argument is weak. Is it cheating if a whole generation of the best and most promising athletes has been doing it? And when it comes to baseball, why do we reserve our furious contempt for the players, when they doped up with the complicity of owners and trainers and broadcasters, all of whom turned a blind eye, laughing all the way to the bank. Baseball itself only took serious steps to ban steroids early on in this decade.

Others might insist that what offends is the thought that you shouldn’t have to dope — which is unhealthy and risky, after all — to have a chance of succeeding in sports. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the reality that, however honorable, sports are dangerous. Chronic pain, multiple surgeries, the risk of concussion and premature arthritis — these belong to the athlete’s Faustian bargain. Steroids may be bad for you; but professional sports are bad for you, and steroid use doesn’t make them that much worse.

Baseball fans, among whom I count myself, have a special complaint: that rampant drug use now makes cross-era comparisons based on statistics impossible. This is ludicrous and sentimental. The history of baseball is one of changes in the field of play, literally. The mound has been lowered, its distance from home plate adjusted; the composition of the ball altered. How can we compare players of yesteryear with today’s professionalized athletes with their high salaries and their science-based workout regimens? And consider this familiar complaint: Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs. Who knows how many fewer home runs he’d have hit if he’d had to face the top black pitchers of his day?

No, we need to look elsewhere to appreciate why this controversy affects us as it does. These other complaints just don’t add up. What’s at stake in all this is our self-understanding, our conception of our own human nature. This surely is what draws us to sports in the first place: the struggles and achievements of athletes model the conditions of our own existence. What shocks us in the recent revelations is a reality about ourselves we are unwilling to admit. We find it hard to admit that we are ourselves environmentally distributed, tool-dependent animals; that so much of what we do and can do depends on the places we find ourselves and on the others around us. We are not self-sufficient.

If I am right, the use of steroids isn’t cheating, except of course in the purely legalistic sense that it has now been banned. In any case, the ban on steroids is no less arbitrary than would be a ban on plastic cleats. More importantly, it reflects an outdated and unsupported conception of ourselves.

Let me consider one last objection. What we love about athletes is that they’re both hard workers and winners of the lottery. Think about the role of height in basketball. Nobody achieves height. You’re born with it. As far as personal responsibility goes, height is just a matter of luck. On the other hand, height does not alone make a great hoops player. Discipline, determination, drive, a willingness to put in the hard hours of training and studying the game — those are the fruits of human labor, and we credit players for rising to the challenge.

I think part of what offends the sports fan is the idea that steroids and human growth hormone are a substitute for hard work. If this were so, it would mark a big difference between drugs and other tools, for the hallmark of most tools or instruments is that you need to learn how to use them. Tool use is itself a domain of expertise.

That is a good point, but you’d have to be crazy to think steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs are a substitute for hard work. To suppose otherwise would be to suppose that steroids are magic potions of the sort we read about in Harry Potter novels.

As with any worthwhile bit of human technology, steroids are effective only if used correctly; they work only in a context; indeed, they work only in the context of the training regimen of the athlete. My bet is that A-Rod and the Rocket and Bonds took steroids the way they have done everything else in their professional sporting lives, with discipline and their eyes fixed firmly on the prize. After all, no drug known to medicine would have enabled you or me to hit line drives to the gap like Rodriguez. And this reminds me of something important. What A-Rod did with the drugs he took was wrap them up in the startling and oh-so-beautiful achievement of his playing life.

Alva Noe is the author of "Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons From The Biology Of Consciousness." He is a professor of philosophy at U.C. Berkeley and a member of the U.C. Berkeley Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

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