Readers imagine what would happen if sports allowed doping.

Readers imagine what would happen if sports allowed doping.

Readers imagine what would happen if sports allowed doping.

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Aug. 13 2007 4:16 PM

What if Sports Allowed Doping?

Readers weigh in on Slate's thought experiment.

Tour de France. Click image to expand.
The Tour de France 

The argument for legalized doping seems to be gaining ground among commentators on science and sports. Last week, I invited Slate readers to participate in a thought experiment: What would happen if the major sports leagues gave up on testing for performance-enhancing drugs? What would the All-Drug Olympics look like in real life?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate.

I didn't ask if this would be a good idea. That's a fine question but one that's better left to the doctors, bioethicists, and sports marketing experts. Instead, I wanted to know what would happen if steroids, HGH, and other drugs became ubiquitous in sports. What would it be like to be a sports fan?

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In my column, I proposed that some sports, like cycling, wouldn't look any different. Some readers extended this idea to baseball, football, and basketball: The thought experiment is already a reality, they argue. The technology of detection has always lagged behind the technology of cheating.

Others pointed out that cycling would indeed be a changed sport if the governing bodies gave up on drug testing. With a leveled playing field, says reader Chuck Smith, dozens of riders would contest the sprint at the end of a race, instead of just a handful. And this would lead to more high-speed crashes and career-ending injuries. A few readers thought the Tour de France would be too easy for amped-up cyclists. The race would lose all its fans, since people tune in to see the pros suffering their way up mountain climbs.

I also argued that pervasive doping would reduce variation among the athletes in a given league. In baseball, the All-Stars would become less distinguishable from the performance-enhanced scrubs; batting averages and ERAs would regress toward the mean. With all the players pushed toward the ceiling of human achievement, we'd see closer, more competitive games and tighter pennant races every year.

Reader Bob Koca ridiculed my notion that 83-win teams would take the pennant on a regular basis. If every team were exactly the same—i.e., if they had a 50 percent chance of winning every game—you'd still expect a significant portion of the league to end up with 84 or more victories. Maybe we should expect to see 86- or 87-win teams in the All-Drug World Series.

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On the other hand, a new emphasis on pharmaceutical training regimens could benefit the wealthiest teams. The Yankees and Red Sox would have the most cash to invest in sports physiology research and better access to the latest doping techniques. This might widen the gap between the big-market and small-market teams. (In college sports, the advantage would go to the top research universities. One Frayster thinks Harvard will win it all in 2035.) If things got out of hand, baseball could institute a salary cap and then require each team to include doping costs in their payroll.

Individual contracts would also change, says G.B. Puckett. Teams might coerce players into signing agreements to use the latest and greatest performance-enhancing agents. Only the top players and agents would have the clout to negotiate no-doping clauses. Other readers argued that players would lose money if there really were less variation in the league. Superstars would become less valuable, and there would be less competition for free agents. That could make salaries drop around the league, which might even lead to lower ticket prices.

Readers Ben Irwin and Steven Lewis wonder if we'd gain valuable knowledge about these drugs as a result of having so many well-paid and willing test subjects. Within a few years, we'd learn quite a bit about the side effects of anabolic steroid use or the performance effects of HGH. Others worry about the doped-up freaks that don't make it into the big leagues. What happens when they filter into the work force? Would health-care costs go up to cover new and unexpected health problems?

Jamie Grant thinks the big pharmaceutical companies would spin off new marketing divisions devoted to the sports world. Christopher Piehler says that doping would get its own television coverage. Athlete "pit stops" would become an important part of game broadcasts. Nutritionists, trainers, and steroid-wranglers might even be included in sports fantasy leagues.

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Meanwhile, sports would have to change their rules to keep things interesting. If the leagues knew the exact effects of each drug, they could institute a system of handicaps. Cyclists using EPO might have a 1-pound weight strapped to each ankle. Charlie Esser proposes that we'd have to start over with a brand-new set of sports to challenge our superhuman physiques. He envisions something that combines raw power (like this) with frenetic speed and physical contact. Could the XFL become our No. 1 sport?

Finally, a few quixotic readers argued that decriminalizing doping would actually clean up professional sports. Mike Pellegrin predicted that the new rules would give "natural" athletes more freedom to criticize their peers. They would win fans by taking voluntary drug tests and shame their opposition into doing the same. As self-policing became more prevalent, drug use would fade away.

Do you have an idea for another Slate thought experiment? Please let us know at slate.thought@gmail.com.