In today’s Wall Street Journal, former commissioner Fay Vincent offers an editorial (behind a pay wall) on sports’ performance-enhancing drug problem. Vincent, reacting to the growing apathy of the public toward confessions of drug use, comments:
All sports must be played according to the rules in fair competition. We use umpires and referees and other officials to enforce the rules because we know proper adherence to them permits us to determine a winner. If we fail to protect our games by insisting the rules must be obeyed, we will see our favorite sports begin to look like professional wrestling. We will have entertainment and not sports. By dismissing the cheating that seems to permeate all sports these days, we are inviting the gradual demise of the very games we love most.
Vincent goes on to relate concerns about teams aligning with medical research institutions to sponsor doping, leveraging such relationships to develop and produce proprietary means of improving performance through science. Concerned with the erosion of true competition spurred, in part, by the media’s apparent decline in outrage, Vincent believes doping in sports is reaching something near critical mass. At such a point, cheating becomes the norm and a return to fairness will be all but impossible.
While I certainly have my own thoughts on the subject, I believe Vincent offers the most relevant rebuttal to his point in the concluding paragraph of his own editorial. He writes:
In a world that has been so enormously enhanced by technology and chemistry–I belong to the generation kept alive by miracle drugs–it is remarkable to see our sports now in a battle to prevent such chemists from ruining the games that give us so much pleasure. The chemists will be hard to beat and this new game has no rules. But to deny that the game is on is absurdly silly and wildly dangerous.
“Remarkable?” Really? It is remarkable that sports are changing along with society? Combating cheating is an important and worthy task for the sports world to undertake, and that can certainly include the media. But to fight societal progress from creeping into sports is a losing battle, and any energy spent trying to freeze sports in time is energy wasted. The single most damaging mistake baseball and its opinion-shapers have made in the entire PED saga has been the direction of focus: backwards. Instead of asking “how do we do this better going forward?”, the relevant parties have consistently and wrongheadedly judged future actions by the rules, norms, and events of the past.
Competition will be fair, or at least close, because the financial well-being (and thus existence) of the games depends on it. But balance will not be aciheved by building walls around sports, freezing them in an era before chemists really began to figure out how to make our bodies work better. The easiest way to aggravate this problem is to deny the natural tendency for sports to evolve with society. I don’t know the answer for how to integrate certain types of performance-enhancing drugs fairly into sports. But that’s where we’re going, and the sports powers that be will serve their games the best by paving the road, not trying to change its direction.