In Defense of Steroids

Jun 12, 2013; Renton, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (25) talks with cornerback Brandon Browner (39) during minicamp practice at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Should we remember the recently retired Allen Iverson as a basketball legend or as a cheater?

“The Answer” was a nine time All-Star.  He was named Most Valuable Player of the 2001 NBA Season and Rookie of the Year of the 1997 NBA Season.  He made it to the NBA finals in 2001 for the Philadelphia 76ers, and he even managed to single-handedly steal a game against an overpowering Los Angeles Lakers squad featuring Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and an army of willing role players.  He led the NBA in scoring four times.  He was league leader in steals three times.  On five different occasions, he led the league in number of 30+ point games.  He boasts unrealistic career playoff averages of 30 points, six assists, and four rebounds per game.  And he is a member of the elusive 20,000 total points scored club.  Seems pretty legendary, right?

During his 14 year career, Iverson was also a known and unapologetic cheater.  The man Jadakiss dubbed “the young boss of the cross for four quarters,” Iverson’s signature crossover dribble—as well as virtually every time he dribbled the basketball in general—was nothing more than a flashy palming violation.  The NBA defines “palming” as ” [a] violation in which a player moves his hand under the ball and scoops it while dribbling.”  Seemingly impossible to defend due to Iverson’s unparalleled ability to change speed and direction, Iverson’s crossover and fake crossover always initiated with his hand moving underneath the basketball—forcing the defender to question whether Iverson would pull up, hesitate and continue in his current direction, or cross over and change directions on his impending drive.  Incredibly effective technique?  Yes.  Objectively against the rules?  Again, yes.

Make no mistake: “the Answer” is one of the fifty greatest players to ever play in the NBA, and quite literally no one in their right mind would hold a referee’s unwillingness to consistently enforce the palming rule against him.  Ultimately, asking if Iverson’s legacy is altered due to his consistent exploitation of a rule that is hardly ever enforced is silly.  Similarly, no one could reasonably call into question the Hall of Fame career of former Baltimore Ravens Offensive Tackle Jonathan Ogden for his illegally holding of opposing defensive ends.  Iverson, Ogden, and effectively every other successful athlete in the history of sports have made careers out of capitalizing on rules not being optimally enforced.  In other words, they’re cheaters.  Good cheaters.  And sports fans are collectively okay with it.

So why is it that so many sports fans are not okay with players who take performance enhancing drugs (“PEDs”)?  Some say that taking PEDs brings dishonor to the history of the game.  [Apparently when talking about such alleged honor in sports history, these fans ignore the racism encountered by men like Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell, let alone the racist sports legends like Ty Cobb.]  Others say that taking PEDs gives the modern competitor unfair competitive advantages not enjoyed by athletes from years past.  [Apparently, these fans are somehow okay with sports legends like Willie Mays taking amphetamines like they were candy.]  Shaming athletes for contemporary PED usage is a logically questionable practice.  At the end of the day, members of the Seattle Seahawks taking PEDs today are doing the same exact thing as Willie Mays was in taking uppers in the ’60s and as Allen Iverson and Jonathan Ogden were in palming and holding in the ’00s.  All of these instances are nothing more than examples of breaking a rule to gain a competitive advantage.

Rules should not be thought of as absolutes.  Take the Ogden holding example.  By rule, holding is forbidden in the NFL.  But despite the illegality of holding, one should never refuse to take hold of an opposing player solely out of some sort of misguided strict adherence to the NFL Rulebook.  Instead, one should weigh the costs and benefits of the hold itself.  For example, do the benefits of the particular hold outweigh the risk of being flagged for a ten yard penalty?  Rules are nothing more than the manifestation of socially-determined carrots and sticks into writing.  So why should we treat violations of performance enhancing drug rules any differently?

Bruce Irvin.  Brandon Browner.  Winston Guy.  Allen Barbre.  John Moffitt.  Richard Sherman.  Walter Thurmond.  Brandon Browner, again.  Since 2010, the Seattle Seahawks lead the NFL in PED suspensions, and these are the names of the individual cheaters.  Let’s reasonably assume, for the sake of argument, that these men were not suspended for taking Adderall—as is the frequently utilized excuse—but were truly caught taking some type of performance enhancing drug.  If that is the case, then these men each individually performed a cost-benefit analysis and decided that the individual and team benefits of taking PEDs were greater than the risk of being caught violating the rule.  This is how humans handle every rule encountered in life.  Should I jaywalk, or should I walk three blocks to the nearest crosswalk?  Should I punch that bully in the face, or should I ignore his verbal insults?  Should I grab hold of J.J. Watt and save my quarterback’s life, or should I let him pass me by due to the risk of a costly potential 10 yard penalty?

If one is to complain about the number of individuals violating a particular rule, then one should not blame the violators themselves; instead, one should hold accountable the entity determining the penalty for that specific rule violation.  Tired of people drunk driving?  Petition the legislature to make the penalty a mandatory ten year prison sentence.  Annoyed with Allen Iverson palming the basketball on every possession?  Tell NBA Commissioner David Stern to make palming a two shot and ball out of bounds foul.  Is Jonathan Ogden holding opposing defensive ends too much?  Get Roger Goodell to punish holding with a 30 yard penalty.  Upset with the Seattle Seahawks for having so many players take performance enhancing drugs?  Dial up Roger Goodell again and this time have him ban violators for life.  If someone is consistently breaking a rule, then chances are the proverbial carrot drastically outweighs the metaphorical stick.  And for that, the blame goes to the rule maker, not the rule breaker.

In Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Michael Lewis brilliantly tells the story of the success of the Oakland Athletics under general manager Billy Beane.  Because the Athletics franchise lacks the financial capital to spend on high-priced free agents touted by other, deeper-pocketed teams, Beane bridges the market gap by using advanced statistics to identify both the players with skillsets undervalued on other teams, and the players on his Athletics with skillsets overvalued by other franchises.  In turn, Beane proceeds to effectively sell his overvalued players and buy the undervalued players.  As Lewis writes in Moneyball:

 What begins as a failure of the imagination ends as a market inefficiency: when you rule out an entire class of people from doing a job simply by their appearance, you are less likely to find the best person for the job.

Within the context of professional baseball, Billy Beane realized that between the late ‘90s and the early aughts, on-base percentage was grossly undervalued, and as a result, players with high on-base percentages became the greatest market inefficiency.  Similarly, in the context of the NFL as a whole in 2013-2014—given the extent of the measurable benefits from performance enhancing drugs, the under enforcement of PED penalties by the NFL, and the insufficient four game suspension deterrent—PED usage has become one of the greatest market inefficiencies in professional football, just waiting for savvy teams like the Seattle Seahawks to exploit.

As of Week 17 of the 2013-2014 NFL season, Las Vegas tabs the Seattle Seahawks as the favorite to win Super bowl XLVIII.  There has been a lot of chatter, even amongst Seahawks fans, that a Seattle Super Bowl victory will warrant a historical asterisk due to allegedly rampant PED usage.  I could not disagree more with such sentiments.  The Seahawks lead the NFL in banned substance suspensions since 2010, and they very well might showcase the greatest number of PED users that have yet to be caught and disciplined by league officials.  But this should not be viewed as a negative; in fact, this if anything is a positive achievement worthy of the highest praises.

Roger Goodell and the National Football League have failed to consistently catch players violating PED rules, and they have also been unsuccessful in adequately punishing those PED rule violators that have actually been caught.  A hypothetical Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl winning team, that may or may not be full of PED users, will have succeeded in part by capitalizing on a market inefficiency directly spawned by the NFL’s incompetence with regard to PED enforcement.  Instead of applying a concept as subjective as “morality” to something as black and white as a rule violation, let’s sit back and appreciate the strategy and tactics involved with an NFL franchise profiting off of the league’s relatively toothless steroid penalization scheme.

Topics: Sports, Steroids

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