Thursday, July 7, 2011

Performance Enhancement

DI: Roger Clemens is in the news at the moment because he lied to Congress- which is a pretty hilarious thing in and of itself, given that politicians are probably the most consistently untruthful people on the planet.

B: It’s true that politicians lie. But I think it’s fair to ask why. And fundamentally, I think it comes down to the fact that the electorate doesn’t like consistency.

Look at the current Republican Presidential nominees. They’re vilified for taking what, at the time, weren’t even controversial stances on issues: Romney on health care, Pawlenty on cap and trade, even Gingrich on the Ryan budget. So they’ve largely denied ever taking those stances, or at least walked them back.

Note that I’m not condoning the behavior. I think if those three men, longtime party members with broad appeal and respect, stood up and together said that the politics of immolation can’t continue- that they took stands they believed in, and wouldn’t retreat just because something they liked was polling well- it would go a long way to changing things.

DI: But isn’t that a fairly undemocratic idea?

B: Let me explain. I have some socialist leanings- anyone who likes Medicare or Social Security does, frankly- but I’d go a step beyond. I’d like to see a higher minimum wage. I’d even support a maximum wage. If I were given the keys to the kingdom tomorrow, and told to remake the US to make it the best country I could, I’d push for more social democratic programs, similar to what exists in Europe, socialized medicine, for a start. But on the other hand, if I were running for or elected President, that’s a different story. Elected leaders aren’t chosen to represent their own ideas and interests, they’re there to represent the people. On a lot of issues I’ve been disappointed with Obama, but in that regard, I really feel he’s tried to be President not just of blue states but of all the states. You might not know it from all of the Nazi/Socialist rhetoric, but he’s a fairly centrist President; I’d say he’s not even as far left as Bush was right.

DI: Okay, but what I wanted to talk about was why Clemens is in the hot seat. He lied. Specifically about using performance enhancers. Or at least that’s the contention. And I know we touched on it briefly, I think around last Halloween- so I’ll try and keep us from rehashing. But I want to know, as a former performance enhancer, how you feel about performance enhancement.

B: Why do I shudder to think what you’ll name this blog entry? But it’s a tough question, and there’s a lot of nuance to it, so I’ll start at the general and we’ll get more specific from there. I think we’re living on the cusp of a new evolution in humanity. Some heroes are aliens, some have magical assistance, but some- I’d say most- of them truly represent what we’re doing or will do to ourselves as a species. Cyborg is a pretty good example. He’s part man and part machine. Call it post, trans, or metahumanity, but we’re changing, evolving; I doubt we’ll recognize the human race in 50 years.

And there are all sorts of mechanisms. Cybernetics, gene therapy, chemicals, nanotech. I don’t know how we’re going to get there, but I think it’s clear from what’s happened in the hero community that we’re changing. I think the people who put on spandex and fight crime- or commit it- are just the precursor.

Which is why I see what’s happening in our sports as a choice. If we decide, as seems to be the overriding thought of the day, that sports ought to be a throwback to what humans can do without technological aid, then so be it. So long as those are the rules. I think the reason there’s been so much trouble is that the rules were technically that performance enhancement was wrong, but in reality everyone was looking the other way. So honest athletes were put at a severe, perhaps even crippling disadvantage. Which is wrong.

Now what the capitalist in me imagines for sports is that we’ll eventually end up with two of everything- a natural and an enhanced version. People or athletes who for whatever reason want to see the pinnacle of human achievement without certain kinds of technology, we have the Olympics and equivalent associations. For those who want to see a man kick a football as far as he can by whatever means, you’d have sports leagues that allow enhancements.

And whichever people pay to watch on TV, whichever people buy merchandising for, that’s what will determine which brands survive. And maybe it’ll be a case, like the NCAA and the NBA, where there’s an audience for both that overlaps. I don’t know.

DI: That was a fairly obvious caveat where you mentioned ‘certain kinds’ of technology being prohibited in the Olympics.

B: Well, there’s a reason why Olympic world records today tend to outstrip records from fifty years ago: the world changed. Nutrition, and sports medicine, equipment and training have all come a long way since then. And it’s only going to get more complicated. Taking your vitamins is okay; but what about eating a genetically modified fruit that secretes small amounts of human growth hormone? That’s probably a silly, and obvious, example, but there’s a lot of nuance that’s going to continue to complicate things. But what about a macrobiotic diet that includes bacteria designed to secrete small amounts of pain killers?

DI: Okay, so continuing to regulate the line between natural and not is complicated. But won’t somebody think of the children? Isn’t telling our youth that it’s all right to trade their health and longevity for success damaging?

B: That’s what sports already do. Even athletes that don’t take performance enhancing drugs are putting their bodies through tough exercise regimens with constant stress on them, and frequent injuries. Even sidestepping the amount of people football grinds up and spits out, athletes tend to trade time off their life for their sport. As someone who kept himself in peak physical condition for nearly thirty years, and engaged in some of the most demanding and damaging activities you can find, I can tell you, it took its toll. I took Venom less than a year, so the side effects I’ve suffered were fairly minimal from that. But there are days I have so much pain I can’t get out of bed- at least not until I get some pain relief. And that’s the reality of modern athletics.

DI: Okay, but do you regret using drugs- as someone who is frequently held up as a role model for children?

B: But I’m not a role model for children. I wasn’t plastering myself on the sides of cereal boxes or putting toys into happy meals, I was trying to help people. Even the merchandising, that was all done for charity- and I think even most children can understand the difference between the cartoon caricature and me doing what I’ve done.

But on the record, I regret my use of Venom. But that’s because it made me irrationally aggressive, even violent- not because it was wrong on the morals. If I had to trade time off my life to save that little girl, to just save that one little girl I failed to save- I’d do it. In a heartbeat. And I wouldn’t feel bad about it.

DI: So the take-away from you is that there should be a decision at the organizational level to use performance enhancers or not in sports, right?

B: Generally, yeah.

DI: And do you know of any heroes currently operating who take performance enhancing substances?

B: No- even among people who don’t believe there’s anything wrong with enhancers, there’s still a stigma about it. But I’d be surprised if I was the only one who ever did.

DI: And given what we’ve been discussing, do you think that’s wrong?

B: I think if it’s an issue of vanity, either to look bigger, or to perform better, purely as a function of ego, that’s wrong, or at least counterproductive. I think steroids and other current enhancers often have nasty side effects, and that having compulsory, de facto steroid use in sports is wrong, too. It’s a choice, not just for the commissioners, but for each player to make, too. There may come a day when players are forced to choose between enhancement and not playing the game anymore- which is unfortunate, but could be the reality.

But as for our League, I’d say that I think anyone who puts their own health at risk to try and help people- whether it’s through enhancement or just walking into a burning building- that’s the definition of a hero. And I’m proud that I know so many people who fit that description.

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