Monday, January 28, 2008

But What If They're Wrong?

It's not unreasonable for consumers to know what it is they are buying. In the case of most products, you have every opportunity to know the quality of you're getting. Food has nutrition labels. Warning labels and package inserts are readily available. And if that's not enough, you can buy a consumer magazine, pull up information on the internets, or even go berserk with a FOIA request for all the information the government might have stored at the FTC.

But try any of the above when you buy sporting entertainment. Oh sure, there's surely lots of information about ticket prices, statistics on the teams and past contests. If you get really good at collecting that information, there's a good chance you can make money in vegas. But if you're like me, you like the actual competition - you like to see achievements that touch on the human drive to compete and excel. I've seen good football games that were completely lopsided in score, but were very entertaining to watch, as the losing team, tried, and then tried again to play above their ability, above their level. And I've seen games close in score that were frustrating to watch; neither team was doing anything right, and I turned away from watching. Does this touch on the quality of what we have purchased? Indeed, it might be the uncertainty of the final outcome that makes the contest interesting. We don't know what we will see, and that's the experience we seek, what we are willing to buy.

At the final tick of the clock, at the finish line, when the last out is recorded, don't we have a right to know what the outcome was? Isn't it important to have closure - to know in fact what we consumed? We want to know how that team stepped it up; how they improvised in the face of great adversity. How the athlete dug deeper down to actually win at the line with a final lunge.

But when we are told after the stadium is empty, after the medals awarded, the anthem played, and sponsor prize money awarded that the winner cheated? S/he is a doper.

We have a right to a statute of limitations. At some point, the game is over, the winner won, and that's the end of it. This means that we have to know if there's a doper among us before they (or their team mates) get to the finish line. Presumably, this is what the anti-doping establishment is trying to put in place at the Amgen Tour of California. Teams will submit roster names in advance to the organizers, who will in turn send those lists to the USA Cycling and then to USADA and UCI. USADA and UCI will confirm that there are no "open investigations" against any of the athletes. Teams have also warranted that no coaches, trainers or support staff have open doping investigations. There will be extensive testing, before after and during the race. The UCI will be implementing their blood passport program.

I'm thinking maybe we should also subject all the participants to the float test: we all know dopers float, but true athletes will sink to the bottom. Then we can rename the race the "Tour of Salem" and wonder what if they're wrong?

To the extent this screening achieves the objective of finding and properly dealing with cheaters, I can't find much to worry about. The trouble is what remains unsaid. I'm rather curious what an "open investigation" is. Does anyone with a "B" sample in a freezer somewhere have an "open investigation?" And who decides what constitutes an "open investigation?" What criteria do they use? And what if they're wrong?

Move on to some other interesting things. Just exactly who are these "other support staff?" Does this mean the mechanic that has an open DUI pending in Mississippi (C2H5OH is a banned substance) can't adjust the brakes on Mr. Sprinter's bike? And what if they're wrong?

We will be assured then that the winner is the winner. The cheaters will be excluded long before the finish line, and we'll know exactly who won, how, and by how much when they award the colorful shirts, kiss the pretty girls, flash the sponsors' logos, and spray the crowd with champagne sparkling wine. We will have a record of the performance, and will have a freezer full of biological samples to make sure anyone who floats in the future isn't doing so by loading their shorts with those illegal "very small rocks" we can't detect. We'll have a blood passport that anyone can examine, even when that athlete has long since left racing and their employer would like to know if they are at risk for getting cancer or Parkinson's disease that will cost them higher insurance costs in the future.

But what if they're wrong?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Doping and Sport

Here's an interesting and well written paper describing the legal processes surrounding doping in sport. Doping and Sport: Guilty and Never Proven Innocent? by Brent Hadley, candidate for the Master of Science in Technical Management degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Seattle WA.

Posted by permission.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Why do you think they call it dope?

Dopers suck. Yeah, we've heard that before, and its a little tough to find someone to say with a straight face that we should legalize and authorize doping in sport. Sure, there are some that suggest merely abandoning the anti-doping movement - surrendering in the war on drugs in sport - would simply let the forces of caveat emptor make this segment of the entertainment industry show its true colors.

I've often wondered exactly what a doper is. It is probably fair to say that an athlete that competes and uses banned substances or methods is certainly a cheater. We know what these substances and methods are for sure. There's a list. If an athlete confesses and admits to breaking those rules, sure - they're a doper, a cheater. Two words: Marion Jones.

Can a principled distinction be made between using those listed substances or methods, and other purportedly legal and allowed substances and methods? Other than "those are the rules?" As the Mitchell Report points out, use of the banned substances puts the athletes, young followers of sport, and the integrity of the games at risk. These conclusions can't be reasonably disputed.

As I type this, I have an NFL football game on the TV. They just ran an ad for a sports supplement. Is there really a difference between the purported benefits of using that legal supplement and a banned one, other than the mere acceptance that "if it isn't breaking the rules, it isn't wrong?" Sure, there is certainly a difference in the medical mechanism the substances promote. But open any sports magazine or web page, and you will find many, many ads and articles extolling the benefits of various supplements, additives and pills. Why isn't aren't these magic bullets banned? Doesn't the promise of these fast, instant benefits from a pill have the same risks the Mitchell report lists? Isn't taking ibuprofen to dull pain during sport cheating? Isn't pain management part of sport? And I really have to wonder why it is OK for athletes, *during competition*, to strap on an oxygen mask! (I've seen this many times in NFL games.) While supplements may be made by reputable companies, many are untested. The FDA does not regulate dietary supplements. Isn't unsupervised use of unregulated substances by youth dangerous? Doesn't sport suffer when there isn't a level playing field, and performance comes from a pill or a chemistry lab?

Nowhere is this issue clearer than the use of oxygen tents. At one point, there was discussion of the use of such apparatus being banned by WADA. The problem, of course, was that how can you tell if someone is "cheating" by using these devices, or if they simply train at altitude? Should it be a banned method to live in Columbia? One of those things on the "you're a cheater list" is that you have a hematocrit level above 50. The strict presumption is that this indicted the athlete is a cheater - has been using banned substances or practices (like homologous blood tranfusions.) But this seemingly brands a person a cheater based on where they train; and many people train where they live. Wanna compete fairly? Guess they have to move. So let me get this straight: you live in Colordao, and spend a lot of effort training above 10,000 feet. This makes your blood values jump, and you fail a test, so you're a cheater. But if you spend some money at GNC (or on ebay?), get lots of pills and work out at sea level, you get gold medals.

Integrity of sport depends on the dedication and hard work of the athletes. One of the best things I ever heard from a coach was in response to a question from a young athlete. The coach was asked "what do I have to do to succeed? To win? I'll do anything." The coach responded. "It isn't what you are willing to do, it is what you are willing to give up. Are you willing to give up fun time with your friends after school? Give up weekends watching TV? Give up other extra-curricular activities at school?" But I begin to wonder "are you willing to give up where you live? Give up your job? Give up getting an education?" Never mind the seemingly ubiquitous availability of pills, creams and sports drinks that can improve your performance - what about competing fairly against someone who is independently wealthy? Doesn't this put the athletes and young fans at risk?

As it turns out, the early Olympic movement recognized this. Professional athletes were spurned. No one wanted the glory of sport to be dominated by "play for pay" athletes. But in a world dominated by many billions of dollars in entertainment opportunities, who can resist? I can't help but wonder how many sports records are held by mediocre athletes that simply had the opportunity to buy their way to the right conditions to excel. Is that different than buying dope?

Think about it next time you see someone ask if it's in you. Is the money in you?