Panel discusses ethical issues raised by doping in pro sports

In its attempt to tackle the ethical issues surrounding the debate on performance-enhancing drugs in athletics, a panel discussion on Jan. 17, titled "Doping in Sports: The State of Play," offered a glimpse of how things play out on the sideline and in the locker room.

Co-sponsored by the Department of Athletics and the Barbara and Bowen McCoy Program in Ethics in Society, the panel included alumna and Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk; Carl Djerassi, professor emeritus of chemistry; David Shaw, offensive coordinator for Stanford's football team; Dan Pfaff, who has coached more than 30 Olympic track-and-field athletes; and Bay Area investigative journalist Lance Williams, who has written extensively about the allegations of steroid use by Barry Bonds and other athletes for the San Francisco Chronicle and his 2006 book, Game of Shadows.

The noontime talk was moderated by Law School Professor Deborah Rhode, the founding director of Stanford's Center on Ethics, and was held in the Arrillaga Family Sports Center's Kissick Auditorium.

But before too long, the insights provided by the cross-section of panelists transported those in the audience on to the field. Shaw, a former assistant coach in the National Football League, described how it felt to be surrounded by super-human athletes.

"It's a strange world to be in," Shaw said. "In the NFL, you have the largest human beings in the country moving around like ballerinas."

Shaw said he suspected that some of those über-athletes were using performance-enhancing drugs, although broaching the topic at the time might have gotten him fired. Shaw said that, sometimes, he experienced moments of panic as players on his team lined up to be tested.

"I would say, 'Oh my god, we need that guy—I hope he doesn't test positive.'"

Meanwhile, Kirk, who won a silver medal in the 2004 Olympic Games, described what it feels like when you're the one under investigation. Kirk was accused of doping four years ago, but her name was eventually cleared. On Thursday, she held up a booklet containing the results that showed she tested negative for performance-enhancing drugs.

"It's easy to accuse someone," Kirk said, adding that once an athlete's name is smeared, "no one reads the retraction."

Kirk also stressed that athletes can excel without steroids—and Djerassi agreed. A steroid chemist for half a century, Djerassi argued for the need to preserve the integrity of athletics.

"You have to follow certain rules or it's not an athletic competition," said Djerassi, who is often called the founding father of the birth control pill. "It's a competition between some athletes and some guinea pigs."

Furthermore, if competitors become no more than testing vehicles for new drugs, in essence, sporting events turn into competitions between drug developers instead of athletes, Djerassi said. Just as Nobel Prizes are not awarded to the research rodents in the lab, Djerassi said, Olympic medals shouldn't be given to human guinea pigs.

"There will always be new drugs, but there will also be new detection methods," said Djerassi, adding that the solution lies in more rigorous testing.

His thought addressed the question Rhode asked at the outset: Did the panelists think it was possible to manage the race between drug making and drug testing—and how to achieve a level playing field in athletics?

Pfaff said he thinks one way to end doping in athletics is for governing bodies to devote more resources to the effort: "The NFL gave just a few million dollars—they spend that much on a weekend conference."

Williams reminded the audience that athletes risk damaging their health by taking performance-enhancing drugs. "They're getting drugs based on substances developed for cattle in feed lots," Williams said.

He added that athletes may be willing to take that risk because they are convinced that's what their rivals are doing. Williams said that's the wrong kind of pressure for players to put on themselves.

"They have a philosophy of cheat-or-lose," Williams explained. "Sometimes we need to protect athletes from their own competitive impulses."

According to Shaw, policies today seem to allow guilty athletes to exonerate themselves simply by holding a press conference, apologizing and then getting right back in the game. Put bluntly, Shaw said, "I don't think the punishments are scary enough."

Shelby Martin is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.