It’s a story that plays out time and again: the meteoric rise of a superstar athlete, with adoring fans that marvel at his strength, agility and quickness. Yet suddenly there's accusations of drug abuse. Investigations, probations, suspensions, and even permanent bans from the sport then follow. For fans it's difficult to understand why a professional athlete would risk using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) when there is so far to fall.
Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies examined the topic in depth to find out the prevalence of PED use and what drives athletes to take banned substances in the face of all these risks.
What they found was stunning: Every single major league sport in the United States has widespread PED use.
And because what's classified as a PED is defined in the tenuous collective bargaining agreements governing the leagues, there's a large amount of drug use that isn't tested for and happens in the shadows.
Gwen Knapp, an industry insider at Sports on Earth has found that “even now, drug testing is a sieve. It is in every sport. The tests are probably useful in skimming off the worst abuse, requiring juiced athletes to moderate their doses — a pretty valuable effect, if you think about this clearly. The tests may even scare off some potential users, but they won't clean up a sport.”
While all sports see a significant level of PED use, the researchers found that instead of players being lazy cheaters they're taking drugs for very specific reasons.
In the NFL, sixty percent of those who test positive for PEDs are linemen, indicating the competitive advantage of PEDs at this position is highest. In Major League Baseball there were no positional differences in drug use reflecting that every position stands to benefit from PEDs.
The types of drugs players take also varies by position. While NFL linemen are caught almost exclusively for steroids, which build muscle mass, defensive backs are almost always caught taking Adderall, which helps them concentrate and improves their reflexes.
In short, the researchers found that drug use amongst professional athletes appears very scientific. Players are taking drugs only when it benefits them most, such as those in positions with the most competition, and when they do take drugs they take very specific types that give very specific performance advantages.
This scientific drug use wasn't what the researchers expected to find. Instead of being slackers it appears highly motivated professional athletes are simply rational gamblers. With multi-million dollar contracts on the line and intense competition athletes cheat when it makes the most sense.
Instead of just continually looking for an advantage, pro athletes in the United States are taking specific drugs at specific times for specific reasons.
The implication of that finding is that PEDs will never stop being a part of professional sports. With huge contracts as an incentive and new drugs emerging all the time, athletes will keep taking the calculated risk of using PEDs for the foreseeable future.
Illustrating how prevalent PEDs are in sports, check out these visualization of games missed for PED use in the NFL and MLB. The full study can be found at here.
Images courtesy of Northwestern University School of Professional Studies