Why do elite athletes risk take performance enhancing drugs (PED, dope)? This question continues to be raised in light of Ryan Braun’s case. Braun supposedly tested with extremely high levels of synthetic testosterone. While Braun appears to have gotten away with taking PED’s because the appeal of his positive PED test was upheld yesterday based on ‘chain of custody’ issues, he risked some tremendous penalties by taking PEDs. At minimum, the official penalty was a 50-game suspension. Probably more damaging was the hit to his reputation as a clean player. But this is not new; there is case after case of high-profile athletes that took the risk and got caught using PEDs and suffered severe consequences (e.g. Floyd Landis, Marion Jones, Alberto Contador, etc.) So, why do athletes dope if the potential penalties are so steep?
I’ve directly asked Sports Illustrated’s Senior Writer David Epstein that question several times in the podcasts that we’ve done with him for the Huffines Institute (click here for his latest podcast with us about the Ryan Braun case). Mr. Epstein writes the large majority of the sports medicine articles that appear in Sports Illustrated and in the past five years has broken major stories on Braun and Lance Armstrong as well as being involved in major series on concussions in sport and the “Tressel Affair” at Ohio State. Mr. Epstein’s response to my question has been (and continues to be) that athletes dope because they don’t think they will be caught (and many times aren’t caught). The easy availability of designer PEDs makes it somewhat easy to evade most of the testing systems. Mr. Epstein points out that in many of the high profile cases (e.g. Barry Bonds) the only reason the athlete was caught is because someone told the authorities what they needed to look for in the sample. So, in short, athletes dope because they think they will have a better chance of winning and they do not see much risk from testing.
That is an interesting perspective and Mr. Epstein certainly has the background and sources to back up that perspective. In fact, I invite you all out next month as Mr. Epstein will be visiting Texas A&M and giving a talk titled “Sports Doping – Still the Rational Choice?” that will hit solidly on why athletes dope. Mr. Epstein’s talk will be just one talk in a series we call the Huffines Discussion on the March 23 and I invite you to come to Rudder Theatre on campus and enjoy all of them (they are only 15 minutes long, so you can see several). The talks are free of charge and start at 1 pm (and run until 4 pm). Click here for more information.
In the meantime, as the Braun case unfolds – note that nowhere has his defense team suggested that his levels were not high – sit back and ask yourself, “would you dope if you were an elite athlete”?
Until next time, have an active and healthy week.