The Steroid Era and the Intrinsic Goods of the Game


I am primarily a basketball and football fan, but I have been watching Alex Rodriguez play baseball almost since I can remember watching baseball at all. All of his performance-enhancing drug use and anti-team attitude has made for a disappointing experience as a baseball fan, and the A-Rod news just keeps getting worse. Of course, A-Rod is only the latest of a string of magnificent baseball players (and athletes from other sports—most blatantly cycling) who have left a sour taste in the mouths of many viewers.

Still, I have heard more than one commentator say something to the effect of, “If I was playing, and I knew I could get away with taking steroids that would give me a competitive advantage, I would take them.” This approach shows a lack of character, because it implies that dishonesty and cheating are permissible given some circumstances (cf. Luke 8:15; Romans 12:17 ; Colossians 3:9). Yet there is another reason why cheating in sports is wrong: it robs the cheater and the other competitors of intrinsic goods associated with the game.

This idea is not original with me. Angela J. Schneider and Robert B. Butcher have written an article titled “Why Olympic Athletes Should Avoid the Use and Seek the Elimination of Performance-Enhancing Substances and Practices From the Olympic Games” that summarizes some previous philosophical material on doping and advances its own case1 . Schneider and Butcher write:

The internal goods of a practice act as their own rewards to practitioners and aficionados. For the  player, the joy that comes with mastering a skill, with the perfect execution of a difficult play, or with the elation at the end of a well-played game are the rewards of the hard work, dedication, and commitment that went into building up those skills in the first place. These joys cannot be duplicated in any other way.2

Then, Schneider and Butcher contrast these internal, intrinsic goods with external goods. These external goods may include money, fame, endorsements, or connections in the business world, but they are not the same as the intrinsic goods. While steroid use may increase the external goods for an individual or a group of athletes, steroids do nothing for to increase the intrinsic goods of sport. In fact, it may hurt them.

Consider that an athlete has no more authentic joy as a result of hitting a long home run because his illegal activity made it possible—nor is the joy increased for his teammates. The athlete has more joy over his superior accomplishment within the rules that govern all players. Players who take a principled stand against dishonesty lose opportunity to excel because of the cheaters. And, whenever dishonesty among teammates is uncovered, some intrinsic goods of sport may become scarce: Unity among teammates may dissolve. Players who take a principled stand against dishonesty may lose the opportunity to excel. Furthermore, an athlete may suffer from debilitating maladies resulting from drug use. Risking such damage in order to obtain external goods is not the same as risking damage in order to obtain the intrinsic goods of the sport (i.e., a basketball player risks hurting himself by playing the game—he cannot play the game without any risk at all).3

In short, Christian athletes have many good reasons to stand against doping.

  1. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 20-21:64-81. 

  2. ibid., 66. 

  3. See ibid., 75 

- 2017