A better way to treat athletes

Some years ago I attended a writer's conference in Deadwood, S.D., where I was a member of a panel discussing baseball and literature. This was shortly after ESPN The Magazine had published a 16-page report on steroids in baseball, after some of the more embarrassing details of our willful blindness had been revealed. Naturally the talk turned to the subject of PEDs, and when the Q&A part of the hour came round, a young man stepped to the mike and asked, "Can we ever trust baseball again?"

Now this young man looked like someone out of a Norman Rockwell painting: jet black hair with a rogue curl, work shirt and work-worn jeans and a toddler of about 3 balanced on his hip. It was as if America itself was asking the question, or so it seemed to me.

The three of us on the panel coughed and stared for a bit, and then I took the glass of water in front of me and moved it to the edge of the table. "Let's imagine," I said, "that this glass is a bottle of pills. And that you -- what are you, 35 or so?" He nodded. "You have reached the pinnacle of a very demanding and lucrative career. But now you, and worse, those you work for, are aware that your skills will diminish, and so your income will wither as well, and you'll never be that good or that well paid again, ever. And I tell you, just take one of these pills every day and you'll get five, maybe 10 more years at the top, money and all. Sure, there might be some side effects, but they probably won't kill you. And yeah, you might be breaking a law or two, but you won't get caught. And that boy of yours will never want for anything. What would you do?"

Not bad, I thought to myself, before most of those assembled set out to tear me a new one. Self-righteousness is not a quality in short supply among writers or sports fans, and in another era, I might have been strung up at the edge of town.

There's been no shortage of self-righteousness on this subject since then. And now Ryan Braun has been suspended for the rest of the baseball season, right on the heels of the news that sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell had failed drug tests. We can anticipate a storm of sermons rolling out from twitter feeds to editorial pages. "Cheaters" will be the nicest word we hear. The sanctity of sports is once again at stake, and a fearful Sports Nation, we will be told, should quaver at the thought.

I don't think so. For starters when did sanctity become a word that applied to the clawing jungle that is the reality of top-flight competition? The very qualities we admire in the best of our athletes -- their intensity, their focus, the fierce energy they bring to the purpose of winning -- can easily be reduced to a simple sentence: They'll do anything it takes to win. Anything. When we see that demonstrated on the court or the field -- the mad scramble for the loose ball, the kamikaze slide into second base, the balls-out catch just before the safety gets there -- we are thrilled beyond measure. When we go behind the curtain and find out what it takes to do those things, it's another story.

The years between when steroids became a bodybuilder's BFF and when the FDA declared them controlled substances no doubt allowed for some audacious experimentation. We know now that Chuck Noll's Steelers -- broadly acknowledged as the greatest pro football team of all time -- tapped into that experiment and that by the next decade many other players followed suit. Is that OK because the drugs were legal then? And if you don't think it's OK, are you saying that any form of medicinal enhancement, illegal or not, taints the "sanctity" of competition? Try playing 162 games of baseball in 180 days, or 100 games of basketball in six months, or a game of football every week for four months, and see how you feel then. Over-the-counter painkillers won't cut it.

Let's take another view and say there's a fine distinction between the amphetamine-based drug that Powell and Gay were taking, though perhaps inadvertently, and the cocktail that the Biogenesis patients like Braun reportedly were using. The first is likely to directly improve your chances in a 10-second race. The second is more likely to help you rebuild a wounded body that has to perform at a top level for another Herculean season, lest you fall off the merry-go-round. Is that the same kind of "enhancement"? There are plenty of us who struggle with the normal wear and tear of aging and whose doctors prescribe cocktails to help us get through it: anti-depressants for the world-weary, sleeping medications for insomniacs, even testosterone and growth hormone for aging bodies. Why do athletes, who accelerate the process of aging through wanton use of their bodies for our entertainment, deserve any less?

Is there a way to oversee how athletes are medicated that makes more sense than a shaming process that resembles the bad old days of colonial America? Why not develop an intelligent system that doesn't ban drugs outright, but simply regulates their use through sanctioned medical practice? In a system like that, maybe Powell and Gay would still be punished. But A-Rod, who's been wearing a kick-me sign for what seems like forever, might instead be under the care of a team doctor who prescribes a cutting-edge combination of drugs that could get him back on the field as a healthy version of what he once was. The benefits of medical research would be made available to those whose bodies desperately need repair. Where's the crime in that?

That's not to say that medical professionals were not involved in the massive deceit perpetrated by Lance Armstrong or that team doctors haven't occasionally looked the other way when players inappropriately self-medicated, especially when it comes to painkillers. But at least the profession is bound by a code of ethics more substantial than play-at-any-cost. A system like that would have the added benefit of driving charlatans out of business and of minimizing the advantage currently enjoyed by the wealthiest players. Today, those with the means can buy the best medical care in the world, legal or not; those without the means are driven to buying questionable products in shabby gyms and street corners. Instead, teams and governing bodies could employ skilled medical professionals who insure that the best of our athletes can play at the highest level for the longest time.

That doesn't mean the issue would disappear. Win at any cost is at the center of the athletic psyche. The search for what gives you the edge won't stop at any sanctioned boundary, or for that matter, any sensible analysis. Otherwise we wouldn't be seeing the proliferation of titanium necklaces, whose value as a PED has proven to be exactly none. And the best and wealthiest may still try to get an edge outside any system's medical practitioners. But at least we'd have a system with clean boundaries and rules and a clear focus on keeping athletes healthy and on the field.

Now that would be a relief.

Gary Hoenig is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine.