It’s old news that Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France victories between 1999 and 2005 following a team-wide doping scandal. The significance of this case goes beyond a seven-time Tour de France victor being required to forfeit all medals, titles, winnings, finishes, points and prizes earned after 1998. It speaks to a tension between a belief in America that doping in sports is wrong and the pressure for athletes to be the best.

In 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released information on their case against Armstrong in which they charged him with “essentially every available violation under the [World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)] Code” (Davies 78). These charges included:

(1) Use and/or attempted use of prohibited substances and/or methods including EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone, corticosteroids and masking agents.

(2) Possession of prohibited substances and/or methods including EPO, blood transfusions and related equipment (such as needles, blood bags, storage containers and other transfusion equipment and blood parameters measuring devices), testosterone, corticosteroids and masking agents.

(3) Trafficking of EPO, testosterone, and corticosteroids.

(4) Administration and/or attempted administration to others of EPO, testosterone, and cortisone.

(5) Assisting, encouraging, aiding, abetting, covering up and other complicity involving one or more anti-doping rule violations and/or attempted anti-doping rule violations.

-USADA, August 2012

In “Doping in Sport: Landis, Contador, Armstrong and The Tour de France,” Chris Davies notes Armstrong was convicted primarily on strong witness testimony with little physical evidence of doping; setting a precedent that a strong case can be built against doping in the sport without positive results from drug tests. Significance? Davies argues:

“This then provides anti-doping agencies a much better chance of proving drug cheats in sport”

-Davies, “Doping in Sport”

However, Davies also notes the pervasiveness of doping in the Tour de France. In regard to Armstrong’s titles, no other cyclist has been awarded the victory since 20 of the 21 podium finishers have subsequently been connected doping.

If everyone is doping, does that make it ok?

Though no official winner has been named following Armstrong’s forfeiture of his titles,

“…it has been suggested…Armstrong, in his own mind at least, can still see himself as he winer since he was only competing on what he might consider a level playing feild.”

-Davies, “Doping in Sport

Even if Armstrong considers himself the winner, it is worth considering that a level playing field is not guaranteed to be an ethical one. While fairness is a value held in high regard in American culture, it seems doubtful that fairness alone is a sufficient condition to deem something ethical. Although a breach of fair competition is one argument cited for why doping in sports is unethical, even scholars who agree that doping is unethical cannot settle on the reason why.

Randolph College Philosophy professor Dr. David Schwartz spoke to the class regarding the ethical arguments made against doping in sports. There are five primary arguments advocating doping in sports is wrong and therefore ought to be banned.

  • It causes harm to those doping.
  • It coerces other athletes into doping so they can remain competitive.
  • It violates the spirit of fair competition.
  • It breaks the rules of competition.
  • It harms the sport itself.

It is dangerous to reduce the case for or against doping to just one of these arguments; indeed many of them are intertwined. We believe that sports are something that ought to be fair and establish rules to help ensure this ideal. When athletes break these rules, they are not only violating a set of agreed upon standards but violating the spirit of fair competition. Thus, it could be said that doping harms the sport in which athletes are doping (or even the nature of sport in America); it goes against our idea that competition ought to be fair and pushes other athletes to dope in order to stay competitive, taking away their right to free choice. The argument goes: if they want to compete and win, they have to dope; thus the athletes who are doping are coercing those who do not wish to use similar performance enhancing substances such as hormones or techniques like blood doping.

The USADA argues against doping drawing on both the harm to the player and coercion argument:

These drugs, however, can be extremely dangerous and, in certain situations, deadly. The negative effects these drugs can have on one’s body make USADA’s mission paramount as to why no athlete should ever have to consider PED use to succeed in sport.

-USADA, Effects of PEDs 

As a communications scholar, I am interested in the narratives and myths that are woven into American culture. Cultural scholar, Roland Barthes argues that cultures have myths, but not the tales of Zeus or Hercules that you may be thinking. These myths are stories told about everyday life, repeated in a culture until they seem matter-of-fact and often become invisible. There are several myths surrounding the narrative of doping in American Sports that are worth considering when arguing that doping is unethical. Many of these ideas are interconnected with narratives about sports and success in America.

As we discussed in Seminar, sports represent a microcosm of the American Dream. We tell the story that if you train hard enough and play by the rules, and you can make it to the top. Chris Bell’s documentary, “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” reflected on this idea as well, pointing out that supposedly in America:

“If you work hard and play by the rules, this country is open to you; you can achieve anything.”

-Chris Bell, Bigger, Faster, Stronger

The implications of this myth are twofold.  It implies that there is some degree of a level playing field and that hard work is the thing that puts someone above and beyond the rest. While dedication and training are undeniably necessary for success, they are far from sufficient. This concept of fairness ignores that everyone brings varying levels of talent, aptitude, and body build, access to resources, etc…that make it easier (note: not easy) to become a competitive elite or professional athlete.

Chris Mosier, an out Trans Athlete who has competed with the US National Team at the International Triathlon Union Duathlon World Championships, told the Washington Post,

“People come in all shapes and sizes…We don’t disqualify Michael Phelps for having super-long arms; that’s just a competitive advantage he has in his sport….For as long as sports have been around, there have been people who have had advantages over others. A universal level playing field does not exist”

– Steven Petrow, Do Transgender Athletes Have an Unfair Advantage at the Olympics?

In telling the story that in sports we all have equal opportunities to succeed, we blame individuals for failure. This is not a belief in the sports world alone, but rather pervades the story we tell about success in America. Rather than recognizing issues within in the foundation and institutions in our country that have created serious income disparity, leaving more and more American’s below the poverty line (14.3% of the US population, or over 43 million Americans – not counting those who are homeless). We tell a story of economic mobility – those who work hard can be successful and happy. Even in extremely poor minority communities, we tell this story.

For young minority men, status and social mobility, we tell the rags-to-riches story as one made possible by sports, whether the sports offer scholarships for further education or keep them ‘out of trouble’ with drugs that run rampant through these communities, but this story fails to account for what has led to neighborhoods so wrecked by crime and poverty that people feel the need to escape. In The Rat that Got Away, Allen Jones reflects on how being an athlete “meant you were special” but even his time playing basketball did not keep him from using heroin and fighting an addiction to the “Bitch Queen.”

The synopsis of his novel tells how Jones escaped poverty and the drug epidemic sweeping through the Southern Bronx in the 1960’s, using

“…his basketball skills and street smarts to forge a life outside the Bronx, first as a college athlete in the South, then as a professional basketball player, radio personality, and banker in Europe…”

-Abstract for The Rat that Got Away by Allen Jones

We tell this story in mainstream pop-culture on repeat. In McFarland USA, Young Hispanic high school students find success running cross country (at least while they are in high school). In The Blind Side, Michael Oher is taken in by a wealthy white family and finds his way to success and a college education through football. Over and over we tell ourselves that it is possible to overcome, but fail to ask why there are issues so grave to overcome. But more on the illusion of social mobility, colorblindness, and systematic oppression of poor and minority communities in a later post. The point here is that the myth of equality in sports parallels with the myth of equal opportunity in American society, one as misleading as the other.

The illusory level playing field is not the only myth woven into the beliefs about sports and doping. Another common assumption about doping in sports woven into several of the arguments above is that doping involves drugs which are performance enhancing, but drug use in American sporting culture is far from limited to PEDs.

We have read about the proliferation of cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, and cocaine use in baseball alone. Jeff Pearlman’s book The Bad Guys Won! recounts the 1986 Mets season characterized by copious amounts of booze, cocaine, and debauchery, including the destruction of an Ozark airplane and subsequent loss of sponsorship.

In his memoir Heat, Mets player Dwight Gooden recalls:

“At one point, the partying was so out of control, the lavatory door accidentally flew open and there was one of my teammates with his face in front of lines of cocaine…I wasn’t shocked that he was using. I was shocked that he was so high he didn’t even realize the door was open.”

Heat, via Jeff Pearlman in The Bad Guys Won

And it appears that the Mets were far from the only baseball team using drugs. Steve Beitler’s article, This is Your Sport on Cocaine, noted how the 1980’s came with a

“torrent of public hand-wringing with two themes: players as role models and the threat that drugs posed to the game’s integrity.”

-Steve Beitler

It seems logical that avoiding illegal or dangerous behavior would be a fair expectation. That is not to say consequences should be harsher for these people than any other citizen breaking the law. It seems logical that we hold every person accountable for their actions with some level of consistency, but further investigation into our penal judicial system quickly shows that is not the case.

We routinely fail to hold these athletes accountable for their actions. Mainstream professional athletes sit on a pedestal in American Culture. We are willing to forgive a number of egregious transgressions, from drunk driving to destroying a DC-10 airplane (thanks 1986 Mets – How the Bad Guys Won). So long as they continue to perform in the game, we continue to pay to watch them play.

What expectations come with the role of professional athletes as role models to amateurs and aspiring young athletes? Athletes and sports are under the cultural microscope. Their actions have the potential to sway public opinion. In 2005, A. Blum wrote an editorial,

In 2005, A. Blum wrote an editorial, Tobacco in Sport: an endless addiction?” about the dangers of athlete endorsement of cigarettes, arguing that young fans watching sports before the 1970’s were subject to “a steady stream of cigarette commercials featuring testimonials by top athletes” even when the correlation between smoking and lung cancer became a rising concern in the 1950’s. While cigarette endorsements became less common with increasing restrictions, the use of spit tobacco remains prevalent. Blum heavily implies that the continued use of tobacco by young athletes and sponsorship of athletic events by tobacco companies perpetuates the continued use of a drug that takes a “devastating health toll” and does little to change public perception in a way that actually promotes a healthier, tobacco-free lifestyle.

This begs the question, how ought athletes in the public eye and the sports industry as a whole act in regards to drug use. With a fan base whose opinions appear to be easily swayed by athlete endorsement and association of drugs (particularly PEDs) with success, some call for stronger more punitive legislation against drug use in sports. Others suggest that what we need is less regulation, not more. Ellis Cashmore of CNN and Patrick Barry in “Finding the Golden Genes” point out that anti-dopping agencies are fighting a losing battle – with every new legislation or drug monitoring technique developed, a new doping strategy appears.

In Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Chris Bell’s own brother would not admit to doping when mentoring young athletes for fear that they would begin to try using. Robert Lipsyte points out that our concern should perhaps focus more on the impact that doping in sports has on young athletes. While Lance Armstrong had a team of doctors and scientists behind him, these youth often have little guidance or counseling on the risks and effects of doping. The “danger zone” as psychiatrist Micheal Miltec puts it is when

“high school boys pump themselves into beach studs, put on extra pounds for the football team, and gain strength and stamina for the campaign to win a college scholarship and pro-contract”

-Lipsyste “Outraged over the Steroids Outrage”


Perhaps what we need is less shaming and punitive regulations and more mindful policies that improve education about doping and have more open conversations about the advantages as well as the risks of doping. We need to be asking what we expect out of sports and why doping may or may not fit.

Do you want sports to be about “natural” personal success (note: what do we mean by natural since PEDs are hormones found in the human body)? If so, then perhaps the solution is to stop supporting sports in which doping and drug use is common practice (although that too may be more difficult considering the extensive corporate sponsorship of professional sports ranging from Doritos to Dodge and extending beyond potato chips and pick-up trucks).

While these conversations and making change are certainly not a simple fix, what is worth doing is far from what is easy.