When talking sports and drugs, be prepared to grapple with the confusion and inconsistencies that exist as it applies to what is and isn’t permitted. What is legal? Illegal? Performance-enhancing? Dangerous? These are just a few of the many questions today that sports leagues struggle with, and how leagues respond to these questions essentially lays out for athletes what they can and can’t do as it applies to maximizing their athletic abilities. Additionally, it’s important to note that millions of young athletes often model what professional and college athletes do, making the questions around drugs and sports even that much more important.
Breaking down drug categories
The discussion around drugs and sports has expanded greatly in recent years, with increasingly more grey areas to delve into with respect to safety and artificial performance enhancement. But before dissecting these questions, I have broken down drugs in sports into three general categories:
A.) Performance enhancement (i.e. steroids, HGH). To date, sports leagues ban these kinds of substances — but there are athletes who not only still try and use these substances discretely, but even argue that leagues should allow athletes themselves to decide what risks they are OK taking as they work to maximize their athletic abilities. The thinking here is that if most athletes used these substances the playing field would be level, and that any long-term negative consequences would be a result of the individuals that made those choices.
B.) Prescription drugs (i.e. antidepressants, psychostimulants). Countless athletes are prescribed various anti-depressants and ADD stimulant drugs (i.e. Adderall), often by simply asking their physician for a script. These drugs are widely accepted in sports, yet the FDA potential side-effects include things like suicidal/homicidal ideation (anti-depressants). Another concern, ironically, has to do with performance enhancement — many athletes have told me how they secure Adderall prescriptions specifically to help with on-field focus. Still, sports leagues currently do nothing to prevent these abuses (advantages?) from occurring.
C.) Recreation drugs (i.e. marijuana). Marijuana is now legal in many states, as well as picking up speed in the science community when it comes to the efficacy of the drug used with various medical conditions, yet is still not widely accepted by sports leagues. Marijuana doesn’t help with on-field performance, but may help with injury rehabilitation, yet is regularly banned. Some athletes use marijuana to deal with the pressures and anxieties associated with being in the public eye, and do so on their time and in the privacy of their homes — should these individuals be banned from their respective sports for these choices?
Putting it all together
The point here today is not to advocate for any kind of drug usage, but instead point out the inconsistencies between drug classifications. Do athletes gain a competitive advantage using performance enhancing drugs? Many athletes say no, arguing that steroids don’t allow baseball players to hit better or throw more strikes. And what about prescription drugs, especially psychostimulants that, in theory, heighten awareness and attention and could arguably be seen as providing athletes advantages — yet these drugs are accepted by sports leagues. And then there are recreation drugs like marijuana that might be legal in your state (and don’t provide any athletic advantage whatsoever – if anything marijuana negatively impacts athletic performance), yet leagues regularly test for this drug. There are many moving pieces when it comes to developing rules and policies balancing performance enhancement, medical needs, and dangers, and getting this exactly right is like threading a needles perfectly.
The confusion over drugs and sports will only continue to grow as we see more athletes prescribed psychotropic medications, and more states legalize recreation drugs like marijuana. Similarly, “hybrid” steroid/HGH-type supplements will always be manufactured, staying one step ahead of testing and allowing athletes to cheat until rules are changed. What should be banned and what should be approved? What drugs are potentially dangerous, yet currently approved to use? And what should sports leagues do in states where recreation drugs like marijuana are legal, but the league still says the drug is banned?