I've been engaged in a spirited debate this morning with my news co-anchor Susan Leigh Taylor about steroids in sports. She's like a lot of people: can't understand why an athlete would take something that might be harmful, and can't see how they justify breaking the rules.
This, of course, after listening to Alex Rodriguez (you can listen here) explain his use of steroids between 2001 and 2003. In particular, Susan mocks A-Rod for one answer, where he had no good explanation for why--if he thought what he was doing was benign--he was so secretive about it.
Here's what I argue, without attempting to justify the use of banned substances: an athlete will do whatever it takes to win. Whatever.
Seriously. Why is it that we honor a guy for playing with a broken bone (how good for you can that be?), while discounting the "will to win" as a motive in taking steroids?
Susan's comeback: "But it's against the rules!"
My retort: "Sure it is. And so are a zillion other things athletes do in the ordinary course of sports. In any refereed sport, we let the players push against the rules until they're caught. A basketball players knows the rules forbid shoving an opponent, but he'll do it until the ref blows the whistle."
I argue that using steroids is logical. If you're trying to be the best--and remember, there's only one "best"--of course you'd examine every avenue. And if you thought that many, if not most, of your competitors were also cheating, you'd sure be likely to ignore that moral high ground in favor of results.
We interviewed a fellow a while back who sought to understand the mindset of European cyclists who doped. What he found makes perfect sense: they were young people who'd had to singlemindedly pursue their sport for so long that they saw no other options. It was win or perish. Ergo, performance-enhancing drugs were a sort of lifeline. Replace "European cyclist" with "American baseball player" and maybe you'll see the why of doping.
Or maybe you won't. Then you'll be like my friend Susan, constantly dismayed at what she sees as the stupidity and weakness of these guys.
She might be right. But I've always thought you can't hope to change human behavior without understanding why people do what they do.