On Performance Enhancing Drugs and Cheating in Mixed Martial Arts

James MacDonald@@JimMacDonaldMMAFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2015

LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 31:  Anderson Silva speaks at a postfight news conference after a middleweight fight against Nick Diaz during UFC 183 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on January 31, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Silva won by unanimous decision.  (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)
Steve Marcus/Getty Images

“I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating.”—Sophocles

An opposition to cheating and the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is as uncontroversial a position as one can take within a sporting context.

It is not uncommon to hear athletes pay lip service to the ethical stance expressed in the above quote, wondering aloud how they could possibly live with having achieved success dishonestly. However, so pithy a statement doesn’t truly capture the nuances of human psychology.

More accurate distillations of this stance are perhaps “I would prefer even to fail with honor than to be caught cheating,” or “I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating as I have defined it.”

Humans are remarkably good at rationalising actions we would readily condemn in others. It is a defense mechanism that lets us have our cake and eat it, too. This element of our psychology is what allows fighters such as Jon Fitch and Anderson Silva to—in good conscience—publicly excoriate PED users, while privately reaping the benefits these substances provide.

The recent spate of high-profile drug-test failures in mixed martial arts has finally brought this conversation front and centre in the MMA community.

Culture has instilled in us strong intuitions about PEDs and cheating that appears to deter further reflection on the subject, but the topic is more complex than you might imagine. What does it actually mean to cheat? Again, we have a strong sense that it can be simply defined as rule-breaking or attaining an unfair competitive advantage.

Consider the infamous “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy in basketball, which involves repeatedly fouling a dominant player who possesses an exceptionally weak free-throw percentage—most famously used against Shaquille O’Neal. We don’t tend to consider rule violations of this sort cheating, so there is clearly room for exploration here.

“Cheating is a really fuzzy concept,” says Professor Shawn E. Klein, a Sports Ethicist and Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University. “I don’t think there’s any clear line there. Certainly, it’s typically going to involve rule violations, but not all rule violations are going to be cheating.

"You take your helmet off in American Football and throw it on the ground. That’s unsportsmanlike conduct and you’ve broken the rules, but no one thinks of that as cheating. And then there are strategic fouls in basketball and professional fouls in soccer. These are violations of the rules, but most people don’t want to call those cheating—and I’m with them.

"These violations are on the borderline because the culture of the sport—the athletes, the fans—are going to determine where to draw the line. Determining where to draw that line has a large social component to it. One thing that distinguishes a strategic foul from cheating is that the former is available to both sides and they recognise the penalty that action is going to incur. 

"Even in the case of Lance Armstrong, that does seem like a perverse even playing field, where it’s no secret that everybody is doping at the top level, so there really isn’t a competitive advantage.” 

The use of PEDs resides in its own special category of cheating. Few infractions come with such a harsh social and professional penalty. The reputational cost is often so severe that it can undermine an athlete’s entire body of work. What must it feel like to be Anderson Silva right now?

For so long considered the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, his UFC career is now widely suspected to be a fiction. Our cultural aversion to PEDs is so prejudicial that some fans would happily strike Silva’s accomplishments from the record.

Which is more objectionable? The act or the lie?
Which is more objectionable? The act or the lie?Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

So, what exactly is it about these banned substances that we find so repellent? Beyond the entrenched nature of these attitudes, there are a number of possible explanations.

Sports fans in general seem to have a higher tolerance for rule-breaking that can be observed in real time. We see a rule violation, and the punishment is usually swiftly meted out by an official.

Even when an athlete escapes reprimand for an infraction, we are inclined to apply more culturally acceptable labels such as “unsportsmanlike conduct.” These fouls come with a tacit acceptance of being caught and a perverse honesty that perhaps tempers our indignation to some degree.

Rule breaking that occurs behind closed doors, as in the case of PED use, strikes us as being a more duplicitous act. Unlike transgressions we can observe in real time, there is no tacit acceptance from the athlete that his chicanery will be exposed.

It isn’t merely an attempt to gain a competitive advantage, but it's also a conscious effort to deceive on a massive scale. One wonders if the collective outrage that follows a positive drug test is less about the act itself than the lengths to which some athletes will go to maintain the appearance of propriety.

If we could somehow put to one side the years of lies, bullying, intimidation and lawsuits, a very different picture of someone such as Lance Armstrong is likely to emerge. Athletes who immediately own their PED use can often salvage some part of their professional reputation, but the more emphatic the denial the more difficult it becomes to reclaim that reputation.

“The public seems quite willing to forgive and move past the story when the athlete comes clean right away,” argues Professor Klein. ”We despise the cover up, the lying, the false indignation at being accused, and so on. When athletes like Andy Pettitte are forthright and don’t hide from their positive tests, we forgive and forget. The Yankees are going to retire his number after all.

“But with the Armstrongs, Brauns, and A-Rods of the world, we seem unwilling to give any quarter. This is more due, I think, to the deception, the false denials, and the pushing of responsibility to others.

"We understand people make mistakes. We know no one is perfect. We accept that people will push boundaries and break rules.   What we cannot abide is the lack of integrity in not quickly admitting and owning up to one’s rule-breaking.” 

Societal attachment to the appeal to nature fallacy has undoubtedly also contributed to our antipathy towards PEDs. This fallacy usually takes the form of either “A is natural; therefore A is good” or “B is artificial; therefore B is bad.” These arguments do not survive even a moment’s reflection, which makes their pervasiveness all the more remarkable. Nature is neither intrinsically good nor fair.

Indeed, nature has created a more uneven playing field than any cocktail of performance enhancers ever could. Consider the athletic gulf that exists between fighters such as Chad Mendes and Cody McKenzie. What possible measures could the latter take to bridge the chasmic genetic gap? The argument that PEDs would offer McKenzie a competitive advantage is almost comically incoherent.

There is a regressive side to sports culture in that it is one of the few cultures that still champions a Social Darwinian ethos. How far do we really want to take this commitment to playing the biological hand we are dealt?

Genetic advantages often dwarf those offered by PEDs
Genetic advantages often dwarf those offered by PEDsUSA TODAY Sports

Let’s consider the case of Phil Mickelson, one of the greatest golfers to ever wield a club.

Mickelson suffers from a condition called psoriatic arthritis—he and I have that in common. This disease is degenerative and often crippling if left untreated. The simple act of swinging a golf club is an applause-worthy feat, nevermind competing with the sport’s elite. To say that weekly immunosuppressant injections enhance Mickelson’s golf game is as understated as pointing out that functioning legs make it easier to walk.

In light of an opposition to artificial performance enhancement, why should Mickelson be permitted to take immunosuppressants that contravene nature’s intended course? Any distinction you might be tempted to make between health and athletic performance is necessarily going to be arbitrary because there is no clear line of demarcation between the two.

Putting those points to one side for now, one also has to wonder how we can justify the widespread acceptance of the many unnatural performance enhancers athletes currently rely on, such as cryotherapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, painkillers and so on. The idea that performance enhancement is something we should police has never truly been a coherent concept.

“Everything an athlete does is with an eye to improving his or her performance, whether it’s working out, the diet they’re on, watching extra film, and so on,” points out Professor Klein.

“It’s all geared towards trying to improve their performance, and performance enhancing drugs fall within the same category. So where do we start drawing the line? Why isn’t Substance A allowed, but Substance B is? There are drugs that are performance enhancing that we do allow, like ibuprofen to reduce inflammation or cortisone shots so athletes can continue to perform or work out.

“When I have conversations with my students about [PEDs], I tend to hear things like, ‘Oh, this guy’s doing it naturally, and this other guy’s not.’ They don’t seem to realise that so much of what athletes do is already unnatural. There is plenty of unnatural stuff that we allow and natural stuff, like marijuana, that we don’t allow.

"The idea that an athlete is performing well because he has a better chemist is very simplistic because the athlete still has to engage in training and preparation. The fact that they might have a chemist is no different from having a nutritionist. So, the natural vs. artificial argument doesn’t really resonate.”

The violent nature of MMA means everything that impacts performance becomes much more consequential, and there is an argument to be made that banning PEDs puts principled fighters in jeopardy.

Some number of athletes will always seek an advantage outside the lines, while the rest will be committed to competing within the rules. Depending on whom you ask, the number of fighters on PEDs ranges from almost everyone to almost no one.

Let’s put it at 50 percent for the sake of argument—a conservative number by most estimates. That would mean half of the MMA talent pool is competing with a chemical deficit. How consequential this is will depend on specific matchups. If a PED-using genetic outlier is competing against a rule-abiding average athlete, that’s a significant health and safety concern of our own design.

Giving fighters the freedom to decide what to put in their bodies immediately corrects for this issue. It also allows legitimate healthcare professionals to oversee and advise the athletes, as opposed to the current skeevy paradigm of unprincipled doctors running underground pharmacies.  

“If it’s out in the open, it’s controllable in a better way,” argues Professor Klein. “Fighters can talk to health professionals regarding their use of whatever they are using and can make sure they’re taking a safe but effective dosage rather than using more than they need to, getting bigger than they need to be or using in a way that’s damaging their liver and kidneys.

"So from the point of view of the fighters’ health and safety, if it’s done out in the open, I think it’s better for the athlete. If you ban PEDs, some people will obey the rules, so you’re actually giving an advantage to the rule-breakers. There’s some truth to that.”

Unfortunately, this kind of conversation is likely to be academic at this point. Lobbying for the legalisation of PEDs would be a public-relations disaster for any sport but particularly for a sport like MMA, which is trailing a legacy of perceived barbarism that continues to impede the potential for mainstream acceptance.

The UFC has announced plans to overhaul its drug-testing policy and its desire to see harsher penalties imposed on drug cheats—up to a four-year ban for first-time PED offenders. This is a good thing for the sport, assuming the UFC follows through on its proposed plans. We have been half-pregnant on this issue for many years. A nine-month ban here and a modest fine there simply isn’t disincentive enough.

If fighters are not going to be allowed to decide what to put in their bodies, the UFC’s commitment to imposing prohibitively punitive bans is the only option that remains. In an ideal world, athletes would be granted the autonomy to decide whether to use PEDs. Society isn’t ready for so bold a move just yet. Will it ever be?

James MacDonald is a freelance writer and featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow James on Twitter.