What if the major sports allowed doping?

What if the major sports allowed doping?

What if the major sports allowed doping?

The stadium scene.
Aug. 6 2007 11:39 AM

What if Doping Were Legal?

A Slate thought experiment.

Barry Bonds. Click image to expand.
The San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds

It's been a rough stretch for pro sports. Last Thursday, Barry Bonds faced boos—and even a steroids awareness seminar —as he tried to break the all-time home run record in Los Angeles. The next day, Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Ryan Tucker was suspended from the NFL for using steroids. And we're just a week removed from the shameful drug haze at this year's Tour de France. We've reached a crisis point, it seems, when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. But what if none of this cheating mattered? With your help, I'm going to conduct a little thought experiment: What would the sports world look like if every athlete could inject himself with God knows what?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

The premise isn't new. After the Olympic doping scandals of the late 1990s, International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch tested the waters of drug legalization in an interview with a Spanish newspaper. "Doping now is everything that, firstly, is harmful to an athlete's health and, secondly, artificially augments his performance," he said. "If it's just the second case, for me that's not doping." But his proposal (if that's what it was) went over like a lead balloon. Sports officials sputtered about the spirit of competition, and doctors argued that legal doping would never be safe for the athletes. Within a few days, Samaranch backed off.

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Our attitudes may be changing. A few weeks ago, freakonomist Stephen Dubner proposed on his blog that cycling might come up with a list of approved doping agents. And on Thursday, the respected science magazine Nature published an editorial calling for similar legalizations in all sports. "The transition would not be painless," the Nature editorial says. "Some people will undoubtedly harm themselves through the use of enhancements, and there would need to be special protection for children."

For the purposes of our thought experiment, let's leave aside the medical questions and the ponderous moralizing about the purity of sport. Instead, let's just try to imagine what would happen if doping were allowed—or at least decriminalized—in all the major sports. Pretend the leagues have decided to abandon all pretense of testing their athletes. It's still illegal to buy anabolic steroids without a prescription, but at least you won't have to worry about passing a league drug test. What would that world look like? How would it feel to be a fan?

Some sports might not be so different. It's hard to imagine that professional cycling, for example, would show any noticeable effects. In a sport like boxing, the system of rigidly defined weight classes would make it impossible for fighters to use steroids to bulk up beyond a certain point. They might use drugs to train harder, enhance their endurance in the ring, or recover more quickly from injuries. But those would all be plusses for the fan—we'd get to see more and better fights.

The effects of decriminalized doping would be much more apparent in a sport like baseball, where relatively small differences in individual ability play out across long seasons, and fans obsess over statistics. What would happen to the numbers if everyone in the Major Leagues were on the clear?

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Home run totals would continue to rise. Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus has shown that the power surge of the last decade can be attributed to middle-of-the-road players who had the most to gain by padding their home run totals. For scrappy singles hitters and big-time sluggers, the risk of getting caught outweighed the potential benefits. (Guys like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were the exception rather than the rule.) But in our world, no one gets caught, so there's no reason for anyone to abstain from juicing. Suddenly, every player on every team bulks up, except the speedsters who don't want to lose a step with the extra pounds. Lineups get bigger and stronger up and down the line, but leadoff hitters—the Juan Pierre types—start to look ever tinier by comparison.

Meanwhile, the pitchers are all taking drugs, too. That means they're throwing harder but not necessarily with more control—so we'll see more strikeouts and walks around the league. Pitchers will also return from injuries faster and get by with fewer days of rest. Some managers decide to ditch their starting rotations altogether and instead march out a parade of amped-up relievers every game. (A guy like Eric Gagne might pitch the first few innings of a game and then get replaced by a Billy Wagner once his amphetamines wear off.) More innings from the best and hardest-throwing pitchers would make life harder for our pumped-up batsmen. Home run and strikeout totals may be up, but batting averages and ERAs remain in balance.

At the outset, different drug regimens would lead to widely divergent effects. Since different body types respond to drugs in different ways, some players would really benefit from the 'roids and others would lose out. (That's what happened to Jason Giambi and his brother Jeremy.) In the first few years of doping, you'd see some wild variations in statistics, and some awful tragedies. A few players might die of heart attacks, suffer career-ending injuries, or otherwise flush away their talent with the wrong doses of the wrong drugs.

With the help of their trainers, though, players would soon figure out the best way to improve their endurance and maximize their strength gain. At that point, you'd start to see uniform improvement around the league. If every player were similarly inflated, individual stats would start to regress toward the mean. In his classic essay "Why No One Hits .400 Anymore," Stephen Jay Gould argued that better training regimens and talent scouts have already improved the quality of baseball players across the board, which has had the effect of reducing variation in talent. A doped-up Albert Pujols would still be much better than a doped-up David Newhan, but the relative difference between them would be diminished. In other words, they'd both be closer to the league average. No one bats .120, but no one bats .400, either.

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Gould's theory may not be borne out by the historical record, but his logic could hold for the druggy future. With no tests for steroids, baseball performance would become more tightly clustered. A guy like Ichiro might lead the league while batting .280. A guy who hit .250 might ride the pine. And let's not forget: Players who got injured would spend less time on the disabled list; performance-enhancing drugs could keep all-star careers going deep into their 40s. (Eventually, someone would break Cal Ripken Jr.'s record for consecutive games played.) Once again, the quality of on-the-field play would improve, reducing variation across the league. This might make for more parity, with tight pennant races and close games filled with home runs and strikeouts. Teams would regularly take the pennant by winning just 83 or 84 games.

But legal problems would throw off the competitive balance from time to time. Remember, performance enhancers have become widespread, but many remain on the black market. If drug abuse became an open secret in the pros, federal agents would converge on clubhouses in regular sting operations. Every once in a while, a network of major leaguers would fall to drug charges, and a few players might end up doing time. Young players might even wonder if the DEA is planting narcs in the minor leagues.

Some baseball fans would tire of the drama; others would long for the game they grew up watching. At some point, a group of wealthy investors would get together and form an alternate "clean" league, marketed to the old-timers and the prudes. (In real life, some sports—like competitive weightlifting—have already developed separate circuits for dopers and nondopers.) In this alternate league, players would undergo compulsory, random drug tests throughout the year. The commissioner's office would follow David Stern in implementing strict codes of conduct and personal style, to further enhance the league's wholesome image.

The differences between the clean and dirty baseball leagues would begin to look like the differences between NCAA and professional basketball. Some fans would gravitate toward the former, with its human-sized players and conservative approach to the game. Others would keep tuning in for the colossal spectacle of MLB …

We could go on and on. But now it's your turn: What do you think would happen if doping were decriminalized? Would sports be ruined, or would we march into a doped-up golden age?

Send your ideas, considered or far-fetched, to slate.thought@gmail.com. (You can also post a message  in the Fray.) In a few days we'll post a roundup of the most imaginative and enlightening submissions.