Skip to main content

Academic Coverage of Sports and Steroids

More than 20 years of published articles on performance-enhancing drugs have ranged from identifying the damage the drugs have on the individual to the damage they have on society as a whole.

As the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform continues its probe into the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball, and Olympic sprinter Marion Jones prepares for her six-month prison sentence for lying about using them, we look back at some of the academic literature that helped define the debate.

The trajectory of academic coverage in the past quarter century has followed an arc that begins with the health effects of the performance-enhancing drugs, through efforts to regulate them, and onto the current ethical considerations …

At the dawning of the steroid era, in 1984, David R. Lamb posed the essential, almost innocent questions in the Journal of Sports Medicine: “Anabolic steroids in athletics: How well do they work, and how dangerous are they?” His conclusion would become the standard verdict on the issue for the next decade: “Anabolic steroids cause interrupted growth and virilization in children, birth defects in the unborn, severe virilization in women, and testicular atrophy and reduced blood levels of gonatropins and testosterone in adult males. In addition, the oral preparations of anabolic steroids are associated with liver dysfunction, including carcinoma and peliosis hepatis, and a number of other disorders including unpredictable changes in mood, aggression and libido.”

But by 1990, an article in the American Journal of Sports Medicine – “Illicit anabolic steroid use in athletes: A case series analysis” – was arguing that previous attempts to study the effects of steroids were already old news, thanks to innovations in the way athletes administer performance-enhancers: “This case series analysis clearly points out that past anabolic steroid efficacy studies are irrelevant by today’s standards since athletes are simultaneously using higher doses and multiple drug treatment regimens.”

Nevertheless, anabolic steroids were added to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act in the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990. Seven years later, The Journal of Sport and Social Issues published “Sports Illustrated, the ‘War on Drugs,’ and the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990: A study in Agenda Building and Political Timing.” The paper explored the links between the legislative effort in 1990 to ban steroids and Sports Illustrated’s aggressive coverage of the steroid issues throughout the previous decade. “Whether steroids should have been legislated is open to debate,” the authors wrote. “Each side of the issue has convincing support, yet each side has its pitfalls.”

By 1996, the International Review for the Sociology of Sport was actually asking: “Does the Ban on Drugs in Sport Improve Societal Welfare?” The answer was an unequivocal, perhaps surprising, “no.” “[R]ather than improving societal welfare by protecting the health of athletes, the ban, by denying athletes access to medical advice and treatment, in fact increases athletes’ health risks,” the authors wrote. “The majority of the deaths and impairment of the health of athletes that have occurred during the ban would not have occurred in the absence of the ban … Removal of the ban would result in an improvement in societal welfare by creating fairer sporting contests and reducing health risks facing athletes.”

As the debate over steroids spread far behind America’s shores, international perspectives on doping and athletes began to have an increasing impact on the literature. In “Hero or Hypocrite: United States and International Media Portrayals of Carl Lewis amid Revelations of a Positive Drug Test” in The International Review for the Sociology of Sport, the authors said of the coverage of Lewis’ positive steroid test: “Journalists writing in the United States largely dismissed the news, while those writing for newspapers published internationally portrayed Lewis and the United States Olympic Committee as sanctimonious and hypocritical.”

And in the past couple of years, researchers have begun looking beyond the physical to the mental and emotional impact of steroids on athletes. In 2006, the Journal of Health Psychologypublished the paper “Experiences of Anabolic Steroid Use: In-depth Interviews with Men and Women Body Builders.” Asked whether knowing all the side effects beforehand would have stopped him from taking steroids, a bodybuilder named John told the study’s authors: “No, I would still have took them. I don’t think that knowing about side-effects would have had any influence on me then. Looking back, if I knew then what I know now I’d probably have still took them. If I had known the side-effects I experienced and suffered I would probably still have taken them. I was, I felt so strongly about taking them.”

Still, steroid use in sports might only be a matter of cheating, not lawbreaking, if it weren’t for the ban.

“Society cares because steroid use is a form of cheating,” Michael Dillingham, an orthopedist and team physician for the San Francisco 49ers and Giants, Stanford University and Santa Clara University, wrote for that university’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics four years ago. “Since steroids work so well, they create an unfair advantage for those who take them, and this breaks the social contract athletes have implicitly agreed to: We are going to have a fair contest.”

To be sure, the current congressional investigation is bound to produce its share of scholarly analysis in future years — some of it, no doubt, questioning the need for such an investigation in the first place.

In July 2005, attorney Philip Sweitzer wrote to Members of the House Committee on Government Reform and the Senate Committee on Commerce, arguing that the Schedule III status of steroids showed a "disregard of scientific reality for symbolic effect." Others have joined the chorus arguing for the decriminalization of anabolic steroids; however, the U.S. government’s position remains unchanged.