I live in Brooklyn and I play in a band. That’s not really unique. It’s not even unique in my building. In Brooklyn, 43% of the population has a band or makes beats or sings piano jazz or plays mariachi music on the train. Ok, I made that number up, but the point stands. There are a whole lot of bands in Brooklyn.
Let’s imagine that we are able to get every musician in Brooklyn to meet in a single large room. Then, let’s ask all of the not-so serious, I just play for a laugh folks to step outside. At this point you will have a room full of thousands of people who spend their lives practicing, buying gear, booking gigs, making flyers and doing everything else they can think of to get their music heard. Most of these people do so with the full knowledge that more than likely their music “career” will never earn them a dime of profit and will never see them performing in front of anything but small groups of other folks with an unhealthy interest in music. These people will have had to deal with petty tyrant promoters, miserly bar owners, sleazy hustlers with get rich quick schemes and lots of self declared experts who have never created anything bursting with eagerness to bad mouth the work that they have struggled and strained to produce. All of this just for the dream of possibly having their music heard and appreciated.
Now, let’s imagine that we have access to a new wonder drug that will allow singers to increase the resonance of their voice, guitarists to increase the strength and speed of their fingers and drummers to increase their stamina. Since this is hypothetical, we’ll also imagine that it allows lyricists to come up with better couplets and producers to come up with better hooks. The drug has some potentially dangerous side effects, but is prescribed by doctors to genuinely sick people all the time. Let’s divide our hypothetical room in two with a thick white line. Everyone who is interested in taking this new wonder drug will stand on the left side of the room and everyone who wants to abstain will stay on the right side. Does anyone really think it would be a challenge to get a seat on the right side of the room? There will be some purists, but they’ll be plenty of people clamoring for the drug regardless of the cost or side effects.
Now replace musicians in that example with artists or dancers or actors or stock brokers. Win at any cost has been the mantra of our society for years. Maybe it always was. We love the image of the renegade lawman who is willing to take matters into their own hands. We want our interns to work marathon shifts at hospitals, our college students to study all night and our computer programmers chained to their desks sucking down Mountain Dew. We know that sometimes these efforts require pharmaceutical assistance and we either willingly turn a blind eye or secretly admire the willingness to do what it takes to get things done.
This morning, I read (via Peter Gammon’s column on ESPN.com) a post on the Only Baseball Matters blog about the history of performance enhancing drugs in sports and it really got me thinking. Go ahead, read that now.
As I alluded to regarding the furor over Michael Phelps being pictured with a bong, I feel that our culture is like a wrestler. We love to pick people up just so that we can get maximum leverage when we smash them back down to earth again. Let’s take a look at the life of the athlete in our society.
We choose from the most apparently gifted at a young age, drive them to exchange childlike play for regimented practice, ask them to shoehorn all of their time and energy into the relentless pursuit of excellence in ever narrower fields of achievement and then we carry them on our shoulders in celebration of their absolute commitment to winning. We pay for special trainers, special equipment, video lessons, cutting edge athletic gear and anything else that we can find to give them any edge, no matter how slight.
We laud only those who have proven that for them life is solely about victory regardless of what sacrifices are required. We make exceptions and excuses for them whenever anything non-athletic becomes too much of an impediment in the way of their progress. We excuse away their failings away from the field as long as they keep putting up the correct numbers while they are on it. We hold those who achieve apart and remind them at every opportunity that they are something special and the thing that makes them special is being just a little bit better than everyone else at one single activity.
We shower the tiniest sliver of those at the very pinnacle of the heap with riches that would make most CEOs jealous and then lambast anyone who appears to be less focused on wins and losses than we are as fans in the stands. We turn young men with a physical gift and a compatible mindset into walking engines of business responsible for supporting extended families or even whole villages and then we demand that they perform consistently at the highest levels of human potential all the while appearing as if they are having the time of their lives playing children’s games. If the day comes when they are unable to meet the ever increasing expectations we place on them, we throw them on the dust heap of history and rush to embrace the new blood pressing forward to take their places.
We ask them to sacrifice their childhoods, time with their families and just plain relaxation. We offer them a dream of success and fame with full knowledge that only the smallest percentage of them who have the correct mix of genetic gifts, mental make-up and old fashioned luck will ever succeed. We push them towards that chimera even though we know the dangers. We drive them to rush back to the field of play after injuries and we celebrate those who are willing to play through pain even if that takes a shot from the team trainer or some new surgery. We do this knowing full well that these things will lead to shorter life spans for many of them, even the ones who will never touch the brass ring.
In short, we throw young people who are physically and mentally strong into a dark closet, arm them with knives and promise them that the few who survive will be showered with huge sums of money and universal adulation.
…and then we’re surprised that maybe just maybe those athletes might take performance enhancing drugs?
I hear what you’re saying, what about the kids? The kids are going to be influenced by these role models and their choices regarding drugs! Maybe that’s true. However, aren’t those same kids going to be influenced by the drugs ads that they are constantly confronted with on TV and in magazines? How about all of the alcohol ads that are shown every five minutes during almost any sporting event? What about the anxiety pills they see mom taking after a stressful day, or the double shot vanilla soy latte they see Dad slugging down every morning?
I don’t have an easy answer for any this. I’d like to live in a world where all competitors are playing on a clean slate and pure talent and skill decides the victors. I agree with the one year ban placed on Antonio Margarito after he was caught with doctored wraps on his hands. At the same time, I think it’s time that some folks came off their high horses and took a look at their own lives.
This quote from another post at Only Baseball Matters really stands out for me:
I have some context, that perhaps a writer like Lupica doesn’t. I’ve worked in construction for most of the last 25 years, and I know what it’s like to work through pain…I’ve worked
with my body since I was 14 years old. In that time, I’ve taken every pill, literally, everything I could get my hands on, to make sure I could go to work every day. Until you do, maybe you can’t understand. But I know that my readers who come from a similar background understand.What about you? Would you consider taking a drug if you new it would get you a promotion at your job and maybe get your kids into a better school?
Has their been cheating in baseball? Probably for as long as people have played versions of the game. It’s not the only sport and more than likely not the worst. Sports are not the only field of endeavor where we as a society have embraced drugs as a tool. It’s time to end the hypocrisy and discuss this with a little less self-righteous absolutism.