How Legalizing Performance Enhancers in Major League Sports Might Benefit Athletes

At the outset, let me note that I have an visceral dislike of the idea that the sports that I follow, or at least that I admire, should be populated by athletes willing to use performance enhancers of all kinds. But after thinking about performance enhancers more generally I found some incongruities in my own thinking and this series of posts will be my attempt to flesh out the meaningful arguments to the debate. So here goes.

I start by noting that athletes are often the people most likely to be injured meaningfully by sports. This is because they’re the ones risking their lives to make a payday or to win a medal. Coaches, team organizations, and the corporations that utilize the human capital of skilled athletes only face the costs of having poor outcomes in competition and seek to maximize profit. In this world athletes have substantial incentives to use performance enhancers to attain even marginal competitive edges because marginal differences, especially at the top, come with disporportionately larger payoffs. The organizations that support them face incentives to maximize athlete performance both continuously over time and in specific, critical situations.

But performance enchancers come with dangers. I don’t know the state of the literature, but I hypothesize that the illegality of consumption has some dampening effect on investment and research, so in an general sense we’re constricted to a limited and diffuse body of knowledge. That is to say, the typical things that people do to hedge against risk, specifically risk assessment, are a lot more limited in this arena and athletes have to bear the risk of unknown and poorly understood outcomes from specific enhancers without the prospect that time will be of much value. Additionally, the constraints on research and legality also constrain the knowledge of the medical professionals who illicitly provide enchancement services to athletes.

And athletes rarely have real recourse. In the case of death, perhaps there are liability issues that can be mediated through the legal system. It seems logical however that most athletes who use enchancers have to hide their use, even years after retirement. For athletes who have been injured through the direct or indirect use of performance enhancers, there is little to no recourse. There is no mechanism that holds medical professionals in this black market accountable, or even to separate negligent quacks and charlatans from real professionals. Moreover, teams and coaches who pressure and exploit athletes don’t face financial penalties or real sanctions from their actions, regardless of outcomes. Worse, athletes who aren’t stars are routinely undercompensated for the risks they face.

So here’s the argument as to why performance enhancers should be legal and athletes who consume them should be allowed to participate in sports. In a world where performance enhancers are legal, there are a lot more protections, legal and otherwise, for players. Legalization of performance enhancers means that players don’t face the real legal sanctions that the status quo holds and it’ll be politically easier to institute mandatory testing and disclosure of players who take performance enhancers. Players will face payoffs relevant to how consumers in the aggregate evaluate their decisions, though I doubt that consumers will really change their behavior too much.

Where this really pays off for players is where insurance companies and other market-based regulatory mechanisms get involved. Because legalization means that markets and market actors get access to more information. Performance enhancers become things subjected to rigorous scientific risk assessment and players have access to medical professionals who they can vet for quality and honesty. Treatments and procedures are documented and now athletes have access to legal remedies against people who exploit them for their talent and health.

I don’t like the thought of sports being poorer for not being pure. But it seems to me that as a spectator who is part of a system that ultimately victimizes a lot of athletes I should be willing to consider ways to end the exploitation of athletes.

I don’t know if there are empirics to support this argument, but I thought it was worth at least hypothesizing.

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