Steroids and Study Drugs: the Cost of Getting an "Edge"


Last month, “60 Minutes” aired an investigative report accusing Lance Armstrong of using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) throughout his career, especially while riding for the government-funded United States Postal Service team. While Armstrong has been dogged by rumors of banned substance use for years, this newest report utilizes testimony from former teammate and Olympic gold-medalist Tyler Hamilton and allegations that Armstrong failed a drug test in 2001.

Surprisingly, this report caused little backlash for Armstrong's reputation. For younger generations, who are saturated with PED stories and surrounded by a culture that uses prescription drugs as “study aids,” this muted reaction reflects society's lowered standards for both athletes and regular citizens who want an edge. Sports organizations and universities need to enact stricter guidelines and punishments in order to return to higher standards for both academic and athletic performance.

There are several causes for this troubling response. Fans have been inundated with information on widespread steroid use for so long that new allegations are brushed aside. Moreover, athletes' financial incentives are so great that many can understand their desires to succeed and reap the benefits. Most importantly, today's culture permits using prescription drugs, such as Adderall or Ritalin, as an aid to study for high-pressure tests; we view our athletes through this cultural lens as well. Athletes are no longer held to a standard of “clean” performance because performance enhancers are accepted, if not expected.

A University of Michigan study reported that 7.9% of students admitted to non-medical use of Adderall. In an unrelated study, many students cited examples of the positive effects such drugs have on their performance. This evidence reflects a cultural norm that accepts using drugs as “study aids” in an academic context. Our generation’s rationalization and tacit approval of performance enhancing drugs reveals a willingness to overlook the rules when it is advantageous to do so. It also reflects society’s ability to find a quick fix for problems, rather than find viable long-term solutions (like increased studying).

In order to successfully curb the use of performance enhancing drugs in both the athletic and academic spheres, we need to implement explicit rules and strictly enforce them. Many athletic associations have clear regulations and processes for handling banned substances and their users, which include punishment for offenders. Academic institutions could learn from this model, and draft honor codes that include penalties for students who misuse the “study aids” we are so accustomed to seeing.

Ironically, last month a minor league baseball player was suspended 50 games for testing positive for Ritalin. Baseball has recognized its problem and is attempting to combat banned substance usage with a punitive system. Academic institutions should seriously consider using similar rules and punishments, or students and athletes will continue to violate established rules and we will continue to brush it off.

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