Lance Armstrong: Evil Or the Future of Sports?

I’ve been staying away from the Lance Armstrong mess because I don’t follow sports and I haven’t been paying attention to what’s been happening. However, a few days ago at Ethics Alarms, Jack Marshall tore into a Washington Post op-ed in which Professor Braden Allenby argued that the sporting world should allow performance enhancing drugs. Jack thinks he’s badly wrong, and gives a lengthy explanation of why. I don’t think I have to know too many details to explain why I think both of them aren’t thinking clearly.

To start with, it doesn’t help Allenby’s case that he seems to be defending Armstrong:

In the past month, cyclist Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. His commercial sponsors, including Nike, have fled. He has resigned as chairman of Livestrong, the anti-cancer charity he founded. Why? Because the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the International Cycling Union say he artificially enhanced his performance in ways not approved by his sport and helped others on his team do the same.

This may seem like justice, but that’s an illusion.

Allenby is conflating two arguments here. The first is his main argument that cycling and other sports should allow performance enhancing drugs. The second is that Lance Armstrong was right to use performance enhancing drugs even though they are not allowed. You can agree with the first argument and still find fault with the second. This may seem to contradict my arguments elsewhere that some rules and laws are so outrageously wrong that that it’s ethical to disobey them, but I don’t think that applies here because sports rules are different from other kinds of rules.

The key thing to remember when discussing ethical issues in sports (and games in general) is that most of the rules are, by definition, arbitrary. Basketball players have to dribble the ball when taking steps, football players can only throw a forward pass from certain positions on the field, and neither is allowed to use a bicycle to get around the playing area. These rules have no intrinsic moral or ethical basis. They’re just the rules of the game.

(Safety rules are an exception. I’m assuming for purposes of argument that we’re only talking about relatively safe performance enhancing drugs.)

This has a couple of consequences. If there’s no ethical dimension to the rules, there’s no ethical argument against changing the rules. Again, they’re just the arbitrary rules of the game. You might think this cuts in Lance Armstrong’s favor, but it doesn’t, because if there’s no ethical dimension to the rules, there’s no ethical argument for breaking them.

As far as I’m concerned, Lance Armstrong is free to ride his bicycle on whatever (non-dangerous-to-others) drugs he wants. But when he enters competitions, he promises to obey the rules of the competition, and there is an ethical dimension to keeping your promises. It is precisely because the rules are arbitrary that there’s no appeal to higher principles when disobeying them.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an argument for changing them, and this is where Jack goes wrong when he discusses the flaws he sees in Allenby’s argument.

Allenby’s argument would extend to allowing students to plagiarize material on the web and present it as their own as well. The theory that the “status quo” must be accepted as the ethical starting point is systemically suicidal as well as philosophically invalid.

Jack is comparing apples and oranges here. School is not a sporting competition: It has rules for reasons that matter. That’s not the case with most sporting rules.

This is also the first appearance of Allenby’s bias. His field is engineering and technology; naturally he believes that more is better. He and his colleagues are the people who develop the technologies athletes use to cheat. Of course he thinks they should be allowed to do it openly and legally, and the more the better.

Which doesn’t mean he’s wrong. And calling this a “bias” is as silly as saying that musicians are biased in favor of music.

Allenby really thinks that sports lovers care most about how well athletes can perform. Undoubtedly, some would be happy to watch freaks and robots compete, but the love of sports is fueled in most fans with admiration for human beings competing using their own abilities, perfected to the level that they can perfect them, without artificial, not to mention surreptitious, enhancements.

That’s a fair argument, but it’s a non-ethical consideration. It’s an argument about the design of sporting competitions.

It’s not even a very good argument about the design of sporting competitions. Seemingly outrageous changes to the rules of a sport usually just result in other sports. Allowing cyclists to put small gasoline engines on their bikes would be a perversion of the values of cycling, but it’s the definition of motorcycle racing. Heck, if fans want to see athletes “competing using the own abilities,” why are they allowed to ride bicycles? Wouldn’t it be more natural if they were on foot?

Again, the rules are arbitrary. Fans may not want cycling to change in certain ways, but that doesn’t make the changes unethical. Cycling with performance enhancing drugs may not be cycling as we know it — or want it to be — but that doesn’t make it unethical. That just makes it a different sport.

“Why not add drugs and other technologies to the list of legal enhancements, especially when most of us are enhancing our workplace concentration with a morning coffee or energy shot?”

Yes, this educator, scholar and lawyer really makes this fatuous and hackneyed argument. To begin with, it’s a non sequitur. How does the widespread use of coffee argue for the legalization of human growth hormone? At best, it is a poor excuse for allowing amphetamines in sports, so athletes can be alert too.

I don’t know how Jack doesn’t get this. It’s an analogy. Both caffeine and human growth hormones enhance the performance of the people who take them. Why is one legal and the other not? Again, the rules are arbitrary.

The real foolishness of this argument is that most people’s performance in the workplace isn’t a competition in which fairness [and] the appearance of integrity is paramount.

And integrity wouldn’t be an issue in the competition if everybody was allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs.

One of the things Jack accuses Allenby of (with some justification, I think) is using a “False definition of the opposing position.” Unfortunately, Jack mischaracterizes Allenby’s position in the next section:

“My anecdotal class surveys show that students have significant skepticism about the reported side effects of such treatments and drugs, as well as perceptions of bias among regulators against enhancement. As a result of such attitudes, there’s a tendency to play down the risks of some technologies. Call it the “Reefer Madness” response — ignoring real risks because you think the danger is exaggerated. This is ignorance born of prohibition.”

I give the professor kudos for a truly original crack-pot justification. Make something legal so you can prove that it’s more dangerous than we already think it is.

Allenby is arguing here that sports regulatory bodies have fallen behind the times when it comes to performance enhancing drugs. Like it or not, athletes are using them, so the responsible thing to do is to make sure they have the information to use them responsiby. It’s kind of like teaching children about safe sex: Would you rather they got advice from experts or tried to figure it out themselves?

I should emphasize that Jack Marshall’s post does have some very good points. In particular, he hits hard on the importance of integrity in sports, a point that Allenby misses by defending Lance Armstrong. The rules of any given sport may be arbitrary, but they are also the definition of the sport. Armstrong may have been very fast on a bicycle, but if he was breaking the rules, he wasn’t playing the sport he was supposed to be playing. It only makes sense that he shouldn’t win awards for a sport that he’s not even playing.

But as I said, the issue of Armstrong’s obedience to the rules is a different matter from whether the rules are wise. I know very little about competitive cycling, but Jack paints a picture of sport that is riddled with cheating to the point where it’s likely that anyone who wins is probably cheating, and anyone who plays with fairness and integrity is probably going to lose.

Those are terrible values. It’s the worst possible situation. The people in charge have created an environment where only the lawless can thrive. As bad as Armstrong was for the sport, the people who created this situation are far worse, because they have created a situation that rewards and encourages cheaters like him.

It’s the completely predicable result of creating a set of rules that you cannot or will not enforce, and there are only two ways out of that situation: You can do what Jack wants and enforce the rules, or you can do what Allenby wants and remove a rule that’s hard to enforce. I don’t know enough about cycling to have an opinion on which is better for the sport, but either is better than what they’ve been doing.

Leave a Reply