Should Athletes Be Allowed To Enhance Their Abilities?

Posted on August 26, 2013 by

Why are performance enhancement drugs illegal in sport? In this short post I will grossly generalize three main arguments given in favor of banning substances and practices that allow one to enhance their abilities: (i) arguments from harm, (ii) arguments from integrity of the sport, and (iii) arguments from justice and fairness.  The latest suspensions have been handed down for the use of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball and I will not be contesting the punishments here. Rather, my goal is to try to make sense of the ban on substances which has led to these harsh punishments. For those who think such a ban is justified I would like to hear your thoughts on the matter. Before arguing why athletes should be allowed to enhance their abilities I will give a brief summary of the arguments offered against enhancement in sport.


One could argue in a number of ways under this tagline. For instance, one could claim that using steroids causes undue harms to be the person using it. To this I say so what. Many sports are quite harmful to one’s health in the first place (i.e football, rugby, hockey). If what one cares about is the health of the person playing then not playing would make the most sense. Further, there is good reason to believe that utilizing steroids in the correct sort of way is not harmful. There are a number of studies that show how steroid use could be beneficial to one’s health and not a necessary obstacle to live a long and good life. Any drug not taken properly can cause harm, we don’t ban all drugs because of this and we shouldn’t ban steroids on these grounds either.

One could argue that using steroids harms others in the sport. Since these players might be stronger they could hurt other players (by tackling them with more force in football or hitting the ball too hard back at the pitcher in baseball). Though true, the same can be said with regards to weight training. What is the difference? Is there evidence to suggest the use of steroids puts others in harm’s way? And if so, does weight lifting without the use of steroids putting others in harm’s way as well? Furthermore, if a freak of nature, (most athletes are anyway) was too strong should we not allow him to play because of the possible harms he may cause to other players? Seems like a worry that is not wedded to the use of enhancements in general so it’s tough to see how this argument is that forceful in itself to absolve the sport of such enhancements.


The claim often made here is that the integrity of the sport is negatively affected if performance enhancement drugs were to be allowed. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) often appeals to  protecting sports integrity when they try to justify banning certain substances. I can’t seem to wrap my head around this argument. First, what does it mean to have integrity in sport or for a sport itself to have integrity? Integrity is often referred to as an internal consistency. Philosopher Bernard Williams has argued that integrity is not a virtue while others have said that it is. Though there is no consensus on what integrity actually is I will take integrity to refer to a valued consistency. One has integrity if they live by certain principles. A sport then will have integrity if it stays consistent to a core set of principles. But what set of principle will leave steroids off the table but would allow for the use of eye-glasses, laser surgery, and all other pharmaceutical advances on the table as acceptable? Often times when conversing about the subject people have said that it would take away from the history of the game. That the greats didn’t use drugs so those that decide to are not staying true to the game. But surely opponents of steroids can’t be serious about this one. The players knowledge of nutrition and what keeps them healthy and injury free is better now than it has ever been. Opponents of steroid use often admit that it is fine if players utilize advancements in the production of protein supplements or knowledge of a nutritionist to help them maximize their health and production on the field. These protein supplements were not available to players in the past, neither was the knowledge had by nutritionists. How about Lasik surgery or contact lenses? Neither were available but yet they are allowed. If the game has had a tradition of allowing players to improve themselves by eating right and taking in products that build muscle then it seems that it would be inconsistent to disallow the use of steroids. The integrity of the game might be at stake because MLB is disallowing the use of steroids. How about that? Notice, I have not appealed to Tommy John surgery and other medical advancements that are allowed and seem to better the athlete and help to sustain their careers in a way that past players were not afforded.


These arguments come in  a variety of ways. Suffice to say that they might be able to be summarized by the following: Steroid use is unfair because the player gains an advantage that others might not have. Now, if a substance is banned and one still uses it then this argument seems to have some teeth. However, as I stated earlier, I am interested on the ban itself. What justifies the ban? If we assume that the ban is not justified, I am seeking some justifications from readers, then if we could make the drugs available to all teams how would using the substance be unfair?

The fact is that we allow athletes to enhance their abilities all the time. Through surgery, through proper nutrition (informed by the latest science), through foreign devices (eye-glasses) we seem to gain advantages that prior generations of players did not have.

So, given that there seems to be no good reason to ban PED’s I think they ought not be banned. Though, I would love to hear from those who object.