A group of educators and scientists are all in favor of cognitive enhancing drugs like Ritalin and Adderall:

Many people have doubts about the moral status of enhancement drugs for reasons ranging from the pragmatic to the philosophical, including concerns about short-circuiting personal agency and undermining the value of human effort . . . Such arguments have been persuasively rejected. Three arguments against the use of cognitive enhancement by the healthy quickly bubble to the surface in most discussions: that it is cheating, that it is unnatural and that it amounts to drug abuse.

In the context of sports, pharmacological performance enhancement is indeed cheating. But, of course, it is cheating because it is against the rules. Any good set of rules would need to distinguish today’s allowed cognitive enhancements, from private tutors to double espressos, from the newer methods, if they are to be banned.

As for an appeal to the ‘natural’, the lives of almost all living humans are deeply unnatural; our homes, our clothes and our food — to say nothing of the medical care we enjoy — bear little relation to our species’ ‘natural’ state. Given the many cognitive-enhancing tools we accept already, from writing to laptop computers, why draw the line here and say, thus far but no further?

As for enhancers’ status as drugs, drug abuse is a major social ill, and both medicinal and recreational drugs are regulated because of possible harms to the individual and society. But drugs are regulated on a scale that subjectively judges the potential for harm from the very dangerous (heroin) to the relatively harmless (caffeine). Given such regulation, the mere fact that cognitive enhancers are drugs is no reason to outlaw them.

I know very little about cognitive enhancing drugs, but I am well-versed in the PED debate as it relates to baseball. One of the things that has struck me about the PED debates, such as they are, is the near dearth of analysis that goes beyond the “steroids are against the rules, so steroids are bad, mmm-kay” argument. I think the more in-depth aspects of the debate — such as whether the costs outweigh the benefits and whether PEDs are somehow different in kind from acceptable training methods rather than merely different in degree — are avoided because, let’s face it, they’re difficult. For the most part it’s sportswriters doing the debating in the first place, and how can most of them be expected to wrap their brains around nuanced topics such as these? That is, if they even want to in the first place.

So while I’m not really that interested in whether college kids without ADD should be allowed to take Ritalin, I am interested in the parameters of the debate, because it may shed some light on steroids and, more significantly, the fun new genetic games that are just around the corner for the sporting world.

(link via Sullivan)

Print Friendly
 Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
« Previous: Selig clears the A’s way to San Jose?
Next: CC Says N-O to NY?  UPDATED! »


  1. Trip said...

    I used cognitive drugs like Ritalin and Adderall all the time and specifically to study for tests in college. I remember during finals people would walk around and sell them because they knew the demand was so high. Maybe this was just Cornell but from my conversations with friends at other schools the unprescribed use of these drugs is beyond what people could imagine.

    I still think about how similar this practice is to what MLB players did using PEDs.

  2. Pete Toms said...

    I can’t find the details – and one of my kids is kicking me off the PC – but I’m certain I’ve read stories this season about the DRASTICALLY increased number of players claiming ADD problems to get these drugs, in response to amphetamine testing.  Anybody out there got the #s?

    As for PEDs….no problem with it, never have….let em take whatever they want..

  3. Grant said...

    Trip – Same experience here. I knew plenty of people who took adderall regularly without a prescription in college. I suspect it’s the same in grad school, though I don’t actually know. It’s not a conversation I’ve had with anyone I know.

    I wonder, though, if my health would be better or worse if I took adderall instead of drinking 8-10 cups of coffee a day.

  4. Jason Rosenberg said...

    I was just trying to formulate something like what Roger Moore said, but let me highlight the part that I think is important.

    First of all, as others have said/implied, it’s very important to distinguish what the rules should be, from how important it is to follow those rules. Sports is, more-or-less, a zero-sum game. So, if you break the rules to gain an advantage, then I suffer – either I have to break the rules, or I have to deal with a competitive disadvantage. That’s why I believe that the rules against banned substances must be stringently enforced. It’s not fair to let some people get away with breaking the rules.

    WHAT should be banned is a more interesting question. The standard argument that “some (good) drugs enhance natural performance while some (bad) drugs allow a person to do unnatural things” seems fairly hollow to me – there is no line between those two extremes. As the article points out, the number of “unnatural” things that we allow is legion. What qualitative difference is there between lifting weights, taking supplement pills and having a team of professionals analyze your performance, on the one hand, and taking a stronger drug (e.g. steroids) on the other? Short of strapping on an exoskeleton, is any of this really in the category of “allowing us to do unnatural things”?

    The way this all comes together, to me, is fairly simple – substances should be banned if they present significant risk to the imbiber. This way, anything that you do to gain an edge, I can do as well, without having to risk my own health. I don’t have to put my life on the line just to keep up with you. THAT is a level playing field, right?

    It worries me when complex issues have simple solutions (those solutions are usually wrong), but I really feel that we make the PED discussion too complex. Make it about health and compliance, and this may actually be manageable!

  5. tadthebad said...

    If PEDs are not permitted as par of the game, then what is wrong with being against their use?  Is it so wrong to wish that cheating was not part of the game?  Is it also so wrong to believe that using steriods generally provide a greater, unfair advantage than many other tradtionalforms of cheating?  It seems like many give the players a pass for these infractions, and I have to wonder why when many of you would also wish to remove the DH from the AL?  It’s all in the name of purity, right?

    I’m not trying to pick a fight, and I happen to be dead set against PED use in all sports, particularly baseball.  But I’m interested in attempting to understand why some of you don’t share this perspective and, in some cases, encourage such performance enhancement.

  6. Phil said...

    I think I can offer some valuable insight into this matter during my study break from finals. As a student at an elite private school in the Northeast, it’s very common to find kids who are taking Adderall (or other CED’s). I think many students currently in school would agree.

    However, as as former D1 baseball player here, my perspective on the issue is a bit more valuable. I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and was prescribed Adderall in college.

    Though my teammates were aware of the drug testing (I had to file a medical release), many of my teammates used it without a prescription for studying. Several of players had experimented using Adderall during games, but only a couple regularly used it each game. As a starting pitcher, I didn’t believe the drug provided much of a benefit to me. It was more popular with position players, who needed to stay focus during the long weekend doubleheaders.
    Ignoring the fact that is a controlled substance, Adderall is merely more powerful and effective than other substances (most of the guys I’ve ever played with habitually drank energy drinks or used similiar stimulants).
    I believe the drugs should be allowed if prescribed by a doctor, but this doesn’t neccessarily address the issue. As we’ve seen in the past, athletes often claim they’ve had prescriptions after failing drug tests.

  7. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Tad—I’m fine with being against PED use because they are against the rules, and as long as they are against the rules, I’ll agree that to use them is to cheat, to be unfair, etc.  No free passes from me.

    That said, I do want to make sure that going forward, we’re making smart rules.  That we are banning things that should be banned and not banning things that shouldn’t. That, in the name of purity, we’re being silly.  Maybe that doesn’t apply to steroids (which have serious negative side effects) but what if a new wonder drug was developed tomorrow that was different? What if we find a way to mess with genes that make super baseball players with no side effects?

    Maybe that’s crazy, but any rule, whether it deals with PEDs or equipment or anything should have a basis in reality and reason, and I’m not sure that we’re currently on an intellectual footing to do that.  If the wonder drug were developed tomorrow, I think we’d be inclined to ban and shame immediately and without thought, and I think that’s wrong.

  8. Roger Moore said...


    The question is not whether players should be allowed to use PEDs even though they’re against the rules.  As long as they’re against the rules players need to be punished for using them, or the rules have no meaning.  The question is why they’re against the rules in the first place, whether they should be against the rules, and how we should go about drawing the lines between permissible and impermissible performance enhancement.

    I accept that there are good reasons for banning some PEDs.  There is already the potential for athletes to do themselves real harm in the search for ultimate performance, and PEDs exacerbate that risk.  Some PEDs are generally illegal, mostly for good reason.  I accept that it’s good for sports to regulate the use of PEDs, if only to prevent a prisoners’ dilemma where athletes who would prefer not to use feel that they have to in order to have a chance against doped-up competitors.

    That said, there’s still a lot of gray area.  As an example, when I was in college I took large doses of Advil to help me deal with an over-use injury in my shoulder.  Was that safe and legitimate?  Advil is obviously safe and legal, but taking it allowed and encouraged me to abuse my shoulder much further than I could have without the help of drugs.  That shoulder still gives me occasional problems well over a decade later. 

    Should there have been some kind of rule to protect me from that kind of self abuse?  How about if I had taken stronger, prescription only medicine?  What about cortisone?  How about something that’s strictly illegal?  Where do we draw the line?  The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be anybody asking those questions, at least in that kind of detail.

  9. tadthebad said...

    I, too, have struggled with the “where do we draw the line” question.  Really, are glasses performance enhancing?  Afterall, they allow someone who otherwise wouldn’t be good enough, the chance to compete.  But the thing I come back to is, glasses/cortizone/advil/weight training/etc., those only allow someone to perform at the level they could if their body was completely “healthy” (for lack of a better word).  Steriods and PEDs allow an athlete to exceed what would normally be their threshold of ability (and yes, the forecast of gene doping will certainly make this debate more complicated).  For that reason, and until other evidence or data is presented, I don’t THINK I would vote for McGwire/Sosa/Bonds/Palmeiro/Clemens as HOFers.  It may be a bitch that there were others who used PEDs and didn’t get caught, so it’s unfair that those superstars have to carry that burden, but it’s not such a burden that it keeps me awake at night…those guys knew what they were doing, and they should have understood the potential consequences.

  10. Pete Toms said...

    Ok, found it.  “Therapeutic-use exemptions” is the term. 

    This from a recent MLB.com piece on “amphetamines data”.

    “That exemption became a point of controversy during hearings into the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball by a Congressional committee in January, when testimony surfaced that exemption claims shot from 28 in 2006 to 103 in 2007.”

    Why not?  It’s a long season, lots of long nights partying, tough to get up for every game….

  11. Jason Rosenberg said...

    TadTheBad – I still don’t buy the “as if they were healthy” vs. “exceed their threshold ability” argument. Let me try to explain why…

    First of all, it’s relevant that every person is different, as are our “natural thresholds.” So, my eyesight is fair, but not perfect and my musculature is…well, far from perfect. LASIKs eye surgery and PEDs are both ways for me to exceed MY natural limitations. The fact that I still might be below some “ideal” person, or even just the most-healthy/fit person in MLB doesn’t really matter, does it?

    I think they sound different, because we have an artificial idea of what “normal” eyesight is (20/20). But, that really is arbitrary – some people have better than 20/20 vision, right? Really, on some level, there is “what I’d be without intervention” and “what I’d be with intervention.”

    Now, for part two, which is harder for me to conceptualize/explain. At a core level, I STILL don’t accept that PEDs are inherently different from these other measures. Let me try to explain, using just strength as a measure. I don’t really have a “natural” strength level. I have one level which I settle in if I live an active lifestyle. If I lead a sedentary lifestyle, my strength will decline (trust me – I have two kids and a non-physical job!). If I lift weights regularly, I will be stronger. If I eat the right foods while lifting, I’ll get even stronger. If I take supplements (Amino Acids, protein powders, rhino’s horn), even stronger. PED’s, even stronger.

    Why should an anabolic steroid be seen as different from a good steak dinner – both are outside factors which, when consumed, make my weightlifting more effective. Because one is artificial and/or abnormal, you say? OK, then how about protein powders and anabolic steroids? What are the qualitative differences between them? That one is chemical while one is (usually) plant-based? Well, if I take lots of advil, I’ll be able to work out more often, thus getting stronger (as well as play when injured). So, advil is a chemical PED, right? Should it be banned?

    In the end, I still come back to the idea that substances should be banned if (and only if, I think) they cause harm. And anyone who takes a banned substance is a cheater and should be treated as such.

    Sorry to ramble – I’ve been chewing on this for while, and I’m using this forum to try to work out my ideas (no one else cares). I’d love to hear some counterarguments, but for now, I’m still sticking with “health” as my ultimate standard!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>