The real fight pass: Legalizing steroids in MMA

Photo by Esther Lin of MMA Fighting

The issue of testosterone replacement therapy has come to an end in MMA, but the issue of steroids in general has not. However, having a discussion about the UFC's policy on PED's should first involve debating whether or not steroid users are cheaters to being with.

It is impossible to follow this sport for one week, and not hear, read, or actively discuss the topic of steroids in MMA. The specific topic of testosterone exemptions in MMA was vividly highlighted in Mike Fish's excellent article in ESPN. Organizations like the NFL, MLB, and the IOC have been known to issue TUE's at a rate disproportionately smaller than has MMA.

Now that the Nevada State Athletic Commission has eliminated testosterone replacement therapy exemptions, the steroid show's over, right? Well, not really.

After all, eliminating testosterone exemptions doesn't mean you're eliminating steroids. Eliminating steroids would mean including real testing for its athletes from EPO tests, to carbon isotope ratio testing, and not having them be just postfight tests, but out-of-competition testing, which the UFC doesn't actually do.

However, I always feel like these discussions, and this is a point of contention I don't specifically take up with Fish and Brookhouse (who are vastly superior writers/journalists), are disingenuous. Even when it's not explicitly stated, there is an undercurrent of moral authority. 'Steroids are bad, therefore steroid users should be punished' - this is the foundation, whether implied or not, for which these discussions stand atop. The demand for increased testing presupposes that irresponsible behavior is taking place, and that that behavior needs to be scrutinized. Even the less dramatic position and downright reasonable criticism over transparency, and the UFC's role in exacerbating the problem, sees it fit to cast aside the central question over whether or not steroid use is fundamentally immoral and worth scrutinizing to begin with.

Now that is a question worth exploring.

One of the odder Sochi Olympic stories occurred after Sweden defeated Slovenia in men's hockey, in which center Nicklas Backstrom tested positive for...Sudafed. Sudafed contains the banned substance pseudoephedrine, but its effect seems harmless enough. Are we really prepared to say that being able to breathe better is so performance enhancing, that such an act is a violation of our moral compass? That Backstrom should have known he was taking a banned substance is an indictment of his judgment. That we see fit to think that whatever is lawful is simultaneously unethical, is an indictment on ours.

We only hope that laws possess an element of ethics. But that is not always the case. Moral action is not a zero sum game. Even hardened imperatives like that 'killings is always wrong' demand inspection in certain situations. Is morality determined by collating risk and rewards, or by respecting intrinsic rights beyond utility itself?

To that end, what's the moral objection to PED's in sports? That it is cheating merely tells us that it is unlawful, which is not a moral objection in and of itself. Smoking marijuana is still against the law in most states, and the result of this what is unlawful is unethical logic has produced some of the most egregious moral violations imaginable.

Is it that they are unsafe? Until enough research can be conducted, for which there is no such thing, it's hard to say. In addition, sports themselves undercut this objection. The issue of concussions is well documented. And we're learning more about how the brain reacts to the small and large jolts of the brain that influence the specific type of axonal injury that ends up being correlated with a brain disease like chronic traumatic encephalopathy. And that's to say nothing of the connections to other, more specific problems.

The average professional athlete lives in a place that demands extreme physical stress on the body. For young athletes, the chance of injury is higher than one-third for all school age children. There is a particularly high risk of back injury to go along with the usual ankle, knee, head, and neck problems. The transition from physical childhood stress into adulthood likely explains why the average NFL career lasts between two to four years. If the enterprise of the professional athlete is one big catabolic process, why condemn them for taking anabolic agents?

I understand the concern over inequality. After all, drugs aren't cheap, and the fighters paid better will be able to afford the latest in designer steroids. But don't we theoretically have this problem anyway? Wouldn't subsidizing them achieve a more balanced outcome?

There's a strong moral argument in the context of mixed martial arts. The UFC revolves around deliberately hurting your opponent. Injury is a natural consequence of that. If we're allowing fighters to more efficiently hurt each other, surely this qualifies as a moral concern, right?

In theory, yes. But this argument is too abstract to be truly valid. To what degree is an injury or concussion delivered to an opponent proportional to the amount of PED's a fighter takes? I'm not trying to minimize the effects steroids have on the body. I've written as much. But can we really say a knockout punch delivered by a fighter on PED's would have failed to do so without them? I don't know.

Philosopher Jacob Beck articulates yet another criticism - the arms race scenario.

In an arms race, there are only two stable scenarios: perpetual escalation, and disarmament--a league where all PEDs are pursued, or a league where none are. The best way to avoid this escalation is to ban the arms outright and enforce penalties on cheaters. Change everyone's incentives, and the arms race will never begin.

But what makes a PED arms race so harmful if we can reasonably argue that the harm is minimal? Even if we assume otherwise, that the harm is clear and present, how does banning PED's stop the arms race to begin with?

And what of the process of testing itself? At what point does a random EPO, CIR, and an IRMS exam become downright invasive for the professional athlete?

Observers, and the media are not wrong to criticize Dana White, and Zuffa's handling of the PED debacle in this sport. But they are wrong to leave the moral debate over PED use itself off the table. What's the point of having a discussion about how promoters should punish cheaters if we haven't even identified what actually constitutes cheating?

I don't know where I stand personally. A person's health is the most fragile thing they have. An athlete's body deserves the benefit of the doubt, in my view.

If there's a lone criticism that stands out to me personally, it's how technology itself will open the door for a different kind of risk. Gene doping, a topic I've discussed in the past, seems to get closer and closer on the horizon. It's not its application to sports that bothers me so much as the mindset it encourages; that we can never say no to new technologies, and only ever seem to debate them post hoc. Like it or not, steroids are secretly a discussion about the future, and how technology will continue to mold, and model the human condition. We'd be wise not to avoid it.

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