Becker rightly stresses relative as distinct from absolute performance norms. I would add that this is a well-nigh universal phenomenon rather than one confined to athletics. The reason is that there are very few absolute standards in nonempirical fields of human endeavor. We form a judgment about the quality of a musical or literary work, an artist, a musical performer, and so forth by comparison with other works, other artists, performers, etc. So it is natural for the writer, the artist, etc. to do whatever he can to increase his performance relative to his peers. The reason empirical fields are different is that in them success can be measured in absolute terms; a contribution to knowledge can be deemed important on the basis of the value of the knowledge alone.
Why then the objection to permitting athletes to use steroids and other drugs to enhance their performance? (The objection to permitting some athletes to cheat by using these drugs sub rosa is too obvious for discussion: that really is unfair competition. The objection would disappear if the ban were lifted.) One valid objection, which seems however minor, is that it complicates comparison with earlier athletes, who didn't have access to performance-enhancing drugs. But in many sports, such as baseball, they had an advantage denied to current athletes: black and Hispanic athletes were excluded from the competition. Other changes that complicate comparison between baseball players of this generation with those of earlier generations include the advent of night baseball, natural gains in height and weight because of better nutrition, improved vision correction, longer seasons, better equipment, better orthopedic surgery, more sophisticated techniques for managing a team, and better health care generally.
As Becker points out, no objections are raised to athletes' improving their performance by better training, more exercise, more practice, or abstention from alcohol and cigarettes. So maybe the root of the objection to the performance-enhancing drugs is that they have long-term deleterious effects on the health of the user. This in turn gives rise to an externality, since use by some athletes depresses the relative performance of non-users. Yet I do not think that serious objections would be raised to self-destructive behavior in pursuit of athletic distinction as long as the behavior did not involve drug use. A football lineman will not be criticized for blowing himself up into a 400-pound freak if he does it without the aid of drugs, even though the long-term effects on his health of the added weight are very bad and even though his weight gain may place pressure on other linemen to match it.
Nor do we criticize poets and other artists who deliberately lead unhealthy lives, either in search of experiences that they can incorporate into their work or out of sheer irresponsibility or mental derangement, even though they might be thought to be competing unfairly with the normals. Some associates at large law firms work much too hard for the good of their health in order to steal a march on their competitors, but they are not criticized either.
So is the ban on doping athletes just a mindless reaction against novelty and science, a Luddite reaction? Or does it just reflect a confusion between cheating when drugs are banned and lifting the ban? I think not. There are two valid reasons for the ban. One is the pure "arms race" character of the doping; there is no improvement in the entertainment quality of football if 400‚Äìpound linemen confront each other rather than 200-pound linemen. In contrast, the overworking law firm associates increase their firm's utput.
The other justification for the ban is that it is a rational means of protecting children. Because successful athletes earn high salaries, because success as an athlete does not require a high order of intelligence, and because an athletic career to be successful must begin in high school (in the case of tennis, perhaps even earlier), there is enormous competition by minors to achieve athletic success. If performance-enhancing drugs were legal, their use by teenagers would be pervasive, and teenagers lack sufficient maturity to trade off the benefits of an athletic career (discounted by the very low probability that any given teenage athlete will have a really successful athletic career) against the long-term damage to their health. Of course adult athletes could be permitted to use such drugs but minors forbidden to do so, but such a legal regime would be difficult to enforce, especially given the "role model" status of adult athletes in the eyes of minors. The lifting of the ban would remove all stigma from the use of such drugs. Their legal and widespread use by star athletes would validate the drugs in the eyes of impressionable youth.