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Philosophy and Sport

Sports and Drugs (and rock and roll?)

Jessie Burdick wonders whether it is cheating for athletes to take dietary supplements, and we ask you, the reader, to tell us what you think.

What would you be willing to do to become a professional athlete? This is a question that demands more than a fleeting thought, because not only will becoming a successful professional athlete bring you millions of dollars, but you will achieve fame, fortune and worldwide recognition. Along with that you will be getting paid a lot to do something that you really love and enjoy.

It seems like professional athletes have it all. They are as worshipped as movie stars, allowed to act like rock stars and always seem to age gracefully after their sports careers are over. So perhaps the question should be what wouldn’t you be willing to do to become a professional athlete?

Would you be willing to cheat to be a professional athlete? Hopefully you are asking the question “What do you consider cheating?” because then you are really considering my question. Cheating is different everywhere, in every culture and even more in every sport.

One of the most common, well-known and least spokenabout, issues in sports is that of supplementation. Just saying that word makes some people uncomfortable. In the world of athletics the use of dietary supplements is widespread and there exists a fine line between what is considered a legal supplement and what is a decidedly illegal steroid.

Supplements are intended to help out an athlete in areas where there may exist a deficiency. This could be a lack of protein, creatine or even testosterone. And because of this any substance taken to correct a deficiency could be considered a ‘supplement’ to the athlete’s diet – even the multi-vitamin he takes with breakfast.

Sport supplementation has become a multi-billion dollar industry that has seen its biggest growth in the last five years and shows no signs of slowing down. It used to be difficult for someone to get supplements, but now you can find things like Ephridirne, which has been banned by the NCAA, in corner stores.

The main goal of the supplement industry is to produce legal alternatives to steroids. Sport supplements come in all shapes, sizes, flavors and forms. And in the United States, the only guidelines that need to be followed are those within the Hatch Act. According to the Hatch Act, in order for any supplement to be legal it only needs to be found in a compound that exists in nature. So what you end up with are legal and illegal supplements, but within the legal supplements you have many categories.

It has to be said that neither supplements nor steroids can make an athlete great by themselves. Any supplement used without a workout routine will produce no results. This is similar to the stance the American College of Sports Medicine took, until 1985. They held that steroids were nothing more than a placebo. Athletes on steroids just worked harder and longer, and this extra work, not the steroids, was causing the incredible muscle growth and strength increase. They were wrong about steroids, but right that hard work, in the weight room or elsewhere, is an unavoidable part of achieving better performance.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Taking performance enhancing substances has a long and rich history. As far back as the 776 BCE Olympics, athletes were using cola plants, hashish, cactus-based stimulants and even eating sheep’s testicles in an effort to boost performance. In the late 1800s, athletes were using ether-coated sugar cubes and wine laced with cocaine to offset pain and fatigue. In the 1904 Olympics, Thomas Hicks, an American runner, had to be revived by several physicians after he won a race while on cocaine and strychnine. And he still got his gold medal.

When is taking supplements considered cheating? Usually it is when they give an athlete a better chance of winning or success. But, then, by that same token wouldn’t the child of two Olympic athletes be cheating? Is the player who just happens to live in, or moves into, the best high school football district in the country cheating? Can a player lucky enough to have a great coach be accused of cheating? Aren’t all the people in these situations guilty of having an edge over others because of their situation? Is this considered cheating? No, because they are competing to win.


Jesse Burdick has a degree in sociology and criminal justice studies and is a former NCAA baseball player and current amateur athlete.

Comments (1): Rick Lewis

“No, because they are competing to win.” But surely even the athlete who stuffs himself with steroids every day is competing to win? So I don’t see that this answer helps us to distinguish the player with the great coach from the supplement user, or either of them from the long-term steroid muncher with a beard and a big bust.

So what is cheating?

One answer is “anything which breaks the rule of the game,” but this is almost too simple, and it leaves unanswered the question of what the rules should permit. Besides, if that was all there was to cheating, we could abolish cheating at a stroke by simply changing the rules to “anything goes”!

Another answer, as Jessie Burdick suggests, is that cheating has to do with gaining an advantage. But just as Burdick says, sports people often have advantages of one sort or another which aren’t considered cheating. So maybe cheating is having an unfair advantage. Then we have to ask, what is an unfair advantage?

Perhaps then an unfair advantage is one based on something other than hard work. But surely this would mean that someone who is naturally talented at sports (perhaps because, as in Burdick’s example, his or her parents are both Olympic athletes) is cheating, because they have an advantage which isn’t based on hard work?

No, because cheating is about what you do, not who you are. You can’t hold people morally blameworthy for being who they are. Therefore cheating is gaining some advantage which isn’t based either on hard work or your natural talents.

Rick Lewis

Comments (2): Tim Delaney

It is estimated that 25-50% of Major League Baseball players take steroids and more than 50% of National Football League players take steroids. The philosophy being, if the competition is cheating, we need to cheat as well.

It is also interesting that many athletes cheat and are taught to cheat, with the philosophy that if you are not caught, you are not a cheater. Former NFL player Tim Green wrote in USA Today (11/6/97) that “You cheat to win, and because you can... In football, you’re not wrong unless you’re caught... Some cheating is even coached.”

Tim Delaneyy

So What Do YOU Think?

What do you think? What is cheating? What is an unfair advantage? Once you have a clear answer to those questions, you should be in a position to decide whether taking legal supplements to boost performance is:

(a) cheating,

(b) gaining an unfair advantage but not cheating,

(c) perfectly okay.

Do write to us and tell us your thoughts – the best responses will be published in Issue 43.


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