Let me be clear to start with that I am not advocating that athletes or anyone else indulge in cannabis, cocaine, or any other recreational drug. The health hazards of most are well-known and severe. I just think that banning athletes from participating in their sports or fining them for using recreational drugs is unreasonable and unfair. (This is just my opinion, of course, and I don’t expect what I say here to cause any rule changes, but it will, hopefully, provide food for thought.)
An example of severe punishment was banning Martina Hingis, a five-time Slam winner, for two years for testing positive for cocaine at Wimbledon in 2007 and basically ending her career. They gave her the tennis death penalty. I have never been a Hingis fan because she was so cocky when she was winning Slams, making statements to the effect that players like Steffi Graf were old and over the hill and that she and the other young, pretty new players were taking over. (One of my fondest memories is of the 1999 French Open final when “old” and “over the hill” Steffi Graf, having suffered multiple knee operations, gave her a good whipping.) Nevertheless, I still feel Hingis’ punishment was excessive.
Performance enhancing drugs: Ok, players using known performance-enhancing drugs like the anabolic agents – Andro, Norandrosterone, Nandrolone, etc. – should obviously be banned. There is no reasonable argument in their favor. These drugs build muscle mass and strength give the users an unfair competitive advantage. But recreational drugs are a totally different matter.
Recreational drugs: Since “recreational” drugs are labeled as such rather than as “performance enhancing” I’m not sure what the rationale is for punishing athletes for using them. There is no convincing evidence that they help performance. (otherwise they’d be labeled as “performance enhancing”). In fact, from what information I could gather, I would guess they are more likely to hurt performance rather than help it. Of course, nobody knows the true effects on athletic performance of drugs like cannabis, cocaine, and methamphetamine, (or nicotine and caffeine, for that matter) so my guess is as good as anybody’s. And it’s hard for me to imagine how cannabis, which is classified as a psychoactive drug (meaning it changes perc
eption and other brain functions), could be helpful to one’s tennis game. If my livelihood were on the line I would be scared to death playing while high on cannabis.
Cocaine is a stimulant, as is methamphetamine, but so are nicotine and caffeine. Most tournament players are jittery enough to begin with and need to relax more than to be revved up. Andre Agassi stated in his book, “Open,” that he took crystal meth when he was at a mental low point. He thought it would hurt his game, but did it anyway, partially because it would hurt his game, and at the time he hated tennis. In any case, the actions of these stimulants are relatively immediate and short term, so getting high the night before wouldn’t increase a player’s energy during the match – in fact, quite the opposite since there is often a rebound effect of exhaustion.
Stimulants during matches: Maybe taking stimulants during a match – for example, in the fifth set when you are tiring – should be a punishable event. (Of course there is no evidence that the banned players were doing this.) Arguing against this is the fact that players are already allowed to take various legal stimulants during matches – caffeinated beverages like Coke, coffee, or tea – but they usually don’t because the experts think they are better off with sports drinks containing nutrients and electrolytes. In fact Michael Bergeron, Ph.D. advised against, during play, using energy drinks like Red Bull in the March 2010 Tennis magazine, saying, “there’s a lot of negative things that can also go with these drinks.” Too much caffeine, for example, can make you jittery and hurt your game. “I’d rather see tennis players get their energy from eating right and resting well,” he says.
Rationale for taking action against athletes using recreational drugs: Joseph de Pencier, of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, states the reason for banning recreational drugs like cannabis: “If you accept the premise that doping can involve health risks, doping can involve actions contrary to the spirit of sport, quite apart from the performance enhancement, then treating cannabinoids in this way is quite justified,” My translation of his statement is that they are banned because they are bad for you and because using them is not nice. He could have added the usual arguments for banning: athletes are role models for young people and their use of recreational drugs, many of which are illegal, sets a bad example.
Rationale for not taking action against athletes: I would like to discuss here each reason usually given for punishing athletes, one reason at a time, and show that they make little sense.
1. Because they are bad for the athlete’s health. This is almost too absurd to justify a counter argument. Protecting the athlete’s health is up to the athlete himself or herself (and maybe their
trainers, parents, coaches, etc.). It is reasonable for the authorities to voice concerns, kind people that they are, bu
t not to punish transgressions. McDonalds hamburgers, Twinkies, cigarettes, scuba-diving, motorcycle-riding, spare-ribs, candy bars and about 1000 other things are bad for an athlete’s health or pose health risks. If athletes want to eat these things or do these things and are willing to accept the health risks, foolish as this may be, what business is it of the authorities to punish them for doing so?
2. Because they are illegal. Speeding in one’s car is also illegal as is not paying one’s taxes. How about a D.W.I.? Misguided as these choices may be, many people do it anyway and are willing to risk the consequences which, if they are caught, will be imposed by the legal authorities after trial in a court of law. The te
nnis authorities are simply piling on in an area that is not their business.
3. Because athletes are role models for young people and are setting a
bad example. The authorities could solve the role model problem by simply not testing for recreational drugs in the first place. Then nobody would know, and there would be no bad example. It is also unhelpful, if this is the issue (which, of course, it isn’t), to share positive test results with the media and public.
Moreover, people in other highly publicized vocations – politicians, movie stars, rock stars, etc. – are also role models. Why are they not also drug-tested and banned from their professions if they are found to be users? Why single out athletes? In addition, the most frequently used recreational drug is alcohol, but even
though it’s legal, drinking it still sets a bad example since it can lead to alcoholism. Smoking sets an even worse example, as nicotine is highly addictive and a killer over time. Should athletes be banned from their sport for setting the bad example of drinking alcohol, smoking, or eating McDonalds hamburgers?
4. Because it runs counter to the spirit of the sport. This argument is the vaguest of all. I’m not sure who gets to define what the “spirit of the sport” is or should be. (I suppose the authorities are.) I’m also not sure what the proper penalty should be for acting counter to the questionably determined “spirit of the sport,” but giving Hingis the athletic death penalty strikes me as excessive.
Since the usual reasons given for punishing athletes for using recreational drugs (as stated above) seem spurious (at least to my logic system), I would like to put forth the only plausible explanation I can think of. I suspect they may have simply mixed together in their minds performance enhancing and recreational drugs. They repeated the mantra “Drugs are bad, drugs are bad!” so many times that they unconsciously felt impelled to apply the same punishments for both without further thought. Having already decided to punish recreational drug use, they then scrambled afterward to come up with plausible reasons to justify themselves. It is a version of “
ready, shoot, aim.”
Finally, the authorities seem to be rather flexible in their acceptance of excuses for failing their drug tests and in their application of penalties. (When they are protecting something as vague as the “spirit of the sport’ they buy themselves a great deal of leeway.) For example, in 1997 when Andre Agassi tested positive for drugs he lied and claimed he had accidently and unknowingly drunk from an associate’s spiked drink (a likely story), and asked for understanding and leniency. After due consideration, the ATP decided against imposing any penalties at all. (After all, boys will be boys!) I know this may sound cynical, but could their decision have been influenced by the fact that Agassi was the biggest name in the game and a huge draw at the gate and with the sponsors? Hingis, on the other hand, was well past her prime and on the way down when her harsh penalty was imposed.
Coincidentally, they also gave the athletic death penalty (a two year suspension) to unknown New Zealander, Mark Nielsen, in 2006 for using finasteride, a drug that reduces hair loss. (In fact, I use it myself, and it hasn’t helped my game a bit.) They claimed that failure to check if the medication might contain a prohibited substance “indicates a serious dereliction of duty on the part of any player who participates in a sport gover
ned by the WADA Code.” Their attitude was, “We’ve got to make an example of him.” So “Off with his head!” You will have noted, I’m sure, that Nielsen was not a household name nor was he a strong factor in enhancing gate receipts. It strikes me that unequal doses of self-interest on the part of tennis authorities make for unequal dispensations of justice.
Unfortunately, we all do lots of things that aren’t good for us. We have choices and we often make wrong ones. It’s too bad, but hopefully we learn to do better in the future. If we don’t, then it’s too bad for us. But in my opinion we should have the freedom to do these things as long as we don’t hurt others. The authorities should protect me from your acts that can hurt me, but not from my acts that can hurt me. In summary, my feelings on the use of recreational drugs, be it by athletes or anyone else, is that it’s mostly a problem for the user himself or herself. To the extent it doesn’t hurt anybody else or give an unfair advantage in sport, it would seem that it calls for rehabilitation and education rather than punishment.