Winning, Ethics and Artifical Athletes

It is the age old problem in sports: is winning all that really matters? Or are there moral and ethical constraints to competition?

The whole plot of the movie, The Karate Kid, was based on this ever present dichotomy in sports. On the one side was the dojo with the teacher who taught kids that winning was everything and losing was weakness. And on the other side was the old Japanese soldier who taught that winning was best when it was a byproduct of character, preparation, hard work, and inner strength.

The one regarded winning as the proof of strength, the other as the result of strength — a subtle, but important distinction, given that cheaters can win too.

This isn’t just the drama of movies though, it plays out every day in the lives of us gym rats as we compete against those who eagerly seize whatever edge they can to win: whether it is camping in the key when there are no referees, or playing dirty outside of the refs’ view.

These kinds of people don’t draw the line at what the rules say the game is, but at what they can get away with to win.

And the debate rages in fandom as well. The pool of MVP candidates is now limited to those with the good fortune to be on the few teams with the most wins, regardless how dominate the players are on respectably successful teams. Never mind that a single player trade, something that has NOTHING to do with a dominate player’s effort or performance, can suddenly transform that player in fans’ eyes from an All-Star, to an MVP candidate.

No wonder kids are confused. With one face we say winning isn’t everything, and with the other we say winning is the only true measure of a winner… all the while failing to acknowledge what should be obvious: that when it comes to winning, we are two faced.

And then we mess up our kids even further as we go and use sports as a metaphor for life!

We are about to really mess up our kids now though, as the dilemma of winning ethically meets the new generation of performance enhancing drugs.

At present, the sports world is pretty much divided into those who think Barry Bonds is a lying cheat, and those who think he is a lying cheat but don’t really care.

But what if a new generation of performance enhancing drugs came on that scene that had no known dangerous side affects, and were as easily available as multivitamins? Would this generation of performance enhancers be socially acceptable?

I asked my wife this, and she said these drugs would become the male equivalent of cosmetic surgery. Just because you look good doesn’t mean it is real. Then again, looking good, winning without regard to how you win, is all a LOT of people care about, isn’t it?

And it is about to get very interesting.

Here is a New York Times article touting breakthroughs in performance enhancing drugs.

There are 2 drugs mentioned in this article.

The first increased athletic performance in mice by 44 percent solely by taking pills; no exercise was required.

The second drug increased performance by 75 percent, but exercise was needed in conjunction with the pill.

Specifically, the performance measured on mice was endurance.

If you are Lance Armstrong, you can immediately see the benefit of a drug that would allow you 75% more endurance. The benefits might not be as evident if you are a bowler or golfer, but then again, what if Tiger Woods could practice 75% longer than everyone else? And what if an owner of a sports team could put most of his money into his starting 5 and a 6th man, and get 75% more from them?

The drugs’ inventors have also invented the tests needed to detect the drugs, and have made them available to the World Anti-Doping Agency, which prepares a list of forbidden substances for the International Olympic Committee.

So sports is safe, right? At least at the highest levels? Well, yes and no.

While the NBA, NFL and MLB can afford to test athletes, as can the NCAA, public high schools cannot. And there’s the first part of the problem.

There are actresses, dancers, and female singers who have had their two lowest ribs surgically removed so that they can have tinier waists. Young women (and even children) have, at tremendous personal sacrifice, gone bulimic or anorexic, wanting to be like their idols. So who here believes that young men (and children) wouldn’t likewise take a simple pill to be like Mike?

And if performance enhancers were as readily available as multivitamins, and had no known harmful side affects, not only would it be extremely difficult to prevent kids from taking them, but many of us here would be encouraging them to do so… especially those who stand too long in the key when there are no refs in sight.

But what of those whose moral compass steers them away from these performance enhancers? Not only will many of them struggle to compete at the high school level, they’ll struggle to compete for collegiate athletic scholarships. Most will be left behind.

Of course, dopers will have to clean up with they hit college, assuming the NCAA tests for and bans new generations of performance enhancers, but the point is less of the good kids will go on to become the role models for the next generation, and more of the “win at all costs” athletes will. This character decay of professional athletes will no doubt manifest itself in various and sad ways in the years to follow as the NBA sees less Ron Turiafs and more Ron Artests. In this way, professional sports will be affected by the new generation of performance enhancers, even if they ban and test for them.

And could the day come when sports becomes segregated again, this time not by race, and dollars split between leagues with stringent drug testing and leagues that are more lax? It doesn’t seem likely, but then again people pay to watch the “And 1” league, whose enforcement of basketball rules is such a joke I wouldn’t even call what they do basketball. It’s like the people who call the fat guys in speedos yelling at each other “professional wrestlers.” Yeah, right.

And what about the thousands upon thousands of post high school amateurs competing in amateur leagues (rec, city, church, YMCA, etc.) across the nation? If they can’t be Marilyn Monroe, with a simple pill they can at least be Anna Nicole Smith.

Years ago people worried about “artificial intelligence” getting out of hand. What they should have been worried about was artificial athleticism.

There isn’t a reverse gear on technology; performance enhancers will keep coming and will keep alive the debate over where the ethical lines of winning should be drawn.

The question is, will the Mr. Miyagis keep coming as well, to teach people the true meaning of winning?

  1. celluleancellulean08-18-2010

    ood post, things like this have been discussed a lot recently. This is an interesting take on the subject.

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