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Surprising Science

#31: Allow Pro Athletes to Use Steroids

Dr. Norman Frost of the University of Wisconsin at Madison tells Big Think “drug-testing policies in professional sports are completely illogical.”

Dr. Norman Fost, director of the bioethics program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, tells Big Think that we should stop all of the sanctimony and allow pro athletes to take whatever performance-enhancing drugs they please.

“Drug-testing policies in professional sports are completely illogical, and the placement of drugs on the banned substance list is quite arbitrary,” says Fost. He readily acknowledges that many of these illegal substances do boost performance, but “so does everything else that athletes do to give themselves a competitive edge.” He also emphasizes that steroids do not create athletes, but rather help them to train harder; “Believe me, I could juice all day and all night, and I’d never be able to hit a major league pitch.” 

In response to those who believe steroids should remain banned because of their health risks, Fost points to the MLB’s tolerance of chewing tobacco during games, and to the NFL’s glorification of bone-crunching tackles. Regardless, Fost insists that the health risks of steroids have been wildly exaggerated. Fost also thinks it’s hypocritical that Lance Armstrong has been crucified in the media for his alleged blood doping, while NFL newcomer (and predestined superstar) Tim Tebow was recently seen on television boasting about his use of a hyperbaric chamber; “Hyperbaric chambers and drugs such as EPO are essentially two means to the same end.”

As for the claims that sports are being distorted by steroids, USC law school professor and bioethics expert Michael Shapiro asks to what standard the game has changed: “There’s no intrinsically natural God-given game of baseball.  Better training standards, larger pools of talented persons, changes in the ethnic proportions among competitors—all of these have changed existing sports and games far more than enhancers have.”  Shapiro laments that we might be better off if sports enhancers were never discovered; but they were discovered, and bans on them are fundamentally not fully-enforceable.  “There will never be a simple, relatively non-intrusive, perfectly accurate (no false positives, no false negatives) set of tests for all enhancers.  We either get rid of the ban, or we will continue with an intrusive war on drugs in sports.” 

If professional sporting leagues allowed their athletes to use enhancers as they pleased, Dr. Fost sees three changes that would take effect immediately: first, there would be more studies on the benefits and risks of different drugs.  Second, these drugs would be prescribed by physicians, and their effects would be closely monitored.  And third, the drug manufacturing would be taken out of the black market, which would lead to oversight on the entire process.  Shapiro alleges that if all players used the same enhancers at equal doses, there would be no relative changes in results; as it turns out, we are simply being protected against a shift of the bell-curve, which has been predictably shifting to the right since the beginning of sports. Yes, records would be broken, just as they were made to be.


Although the legalization of steroids could cause sports statistics (like the career home run record in baseball) to spike, these marginal variations would be small in the grand scheme of sports history. The game has always shifted incrementally in the direction of “farther, faster, heavier,” Shapiro notes. He says steroids can’t turn an average Joe into a pro athlete, but rather they simply allow people to supplement their natural athletic abilities with more intense training.  Finally, the negative medical consequences of steroids are less known than those of many substances which are legal in sports, such as tobacco.  

Why We Should Reject This

Penn State Professor Emeritus of Health Policy and Administration, and Exercise and Sport Science Dr. Charles Yesalis claims that steroids are fundamentally different from any other way that an athlete might seek a competitive edge: “These drugs, meaning anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and so forth, they will take you places that you’ll never get to naturally.  It’s not even arguable.” 

Allowing physicians to administer steroids to athletes and monitor their usage won’t help the problem of cheating in Yesalis’ eyes: “Everybody draws lines in the sand differently.  The doctors are only going to give you so much; the athletes will still go to the black market- that’s just human nature.” 

Yesalis also offers this: “Unfortunately, kids look up to these athletes as role models.  What do you think the kids are going to do if all of the top athletes are on steroids?”

More Resources

— “Steroid Hysteria: Unpacking the Claims,” 2005 article by Dr. Norman Fost in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics.

— “Baseball Between the Numbers: What do statistics tell us about steroids?” 2006 article in Baseball Prospectus by Nate Silver analyzing the history and effects of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

— “The Growth Hormone Myth: What athletes, fans and the media don’t understand about HGH,” 2007 Slate article by Daniel Engber.


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