Was It Worth It?

Baseball’s all-time home run leader, Barry Bonds.

If you have ever participated in a competitive sport, you can surely appreciate the determination of some athletes to win at any price. The admiration, recognition, and financial bounty available to those who are most successful is very lucrative and can temp some to try anything.  In most cases this would include very intense training and practicing, but too frequently today athletes are resorting to a very dangerous method, performance-enhancing drugs. The usage of performance-enhancing drugs in athletics today has become a very important and problematic issue in recent years, but the reasons athletes use performance-enhancing drugs can be connected to a principle several centuries old by Niccolò Machiavelli.

Niccolò Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s 16th century writing The Prince is a work that describes how Machiavelli believes a successful leader or ruler of a principality should act and govern. He details almost every aspect of governing and provides an in-depth perspective on the necessary attributes of successful leadership. A prominent theme that results from this work is the belief that the end result of an action will justify the means of attaining that result. Machiavelli believes that in order to be successful, one must behave in a way that some may consider immoral or cruel. The practice of acts that some would consider outlandish often times leads to a successful result, and Machiavelli illustrates the necessity of such acts to be a successful leader. The belief that ends justify the means is a centuries-old theory that can be applied to the current issue plaguing college and professional sports, the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Starting in the late 1960s, the issue of performance-enhancing drug use among athletes has grown exponentially. Athletes began trying alternative methods to increase their performance and around this time, many turned to performance-enhancing drugs including anabolic steroids, growth hormones, and amphetamines. The hope of these athletes was the increase in hormones including testosterone, resulting in the formation of additional muscle and body mass, which would aid them in their sport. As the New York Department of Health describes in their report, while performance-enhancing drugs do not increase skill or agility, they do result in someone becoming bigger and stronger; very desirable traits among athletes competing at high levels. As professional leagues began to recognize the use among their athletes, testing programs were put in place and violators were prohibited from competition. Despite the increase in testing, however, athletes in the past as well as today still try to gain an unfair advantage, as CNN illustrates in their extensive timeline showing the progression of performance-enhancing drug use. Athletes see an opportunity to gain an advantage quickly and easily, and several parallels can be drawn between this problematic way of thinking and the themes of Machiavelli’s work.

When applying Machiavelli’s theory of ends justifying the means to the topic of sports, it is possible to believe that athletes may need to gain unfair advantages. As politicians in The Prince needed to sometimes use cruel or immoral tactics to justify their results, athletes use performance-enhancing drugs to give them an unfair advantage to ensure victory. In both instances, many people would consider these practices immoral, but according to Machiavelli, they are imperative. As Machiavelli points out in his work, there are numerous examples of politicians that have successfully ruled through the use of immoral practices, and the list of athletes that have achieved their successes through the use of performance-enhancing drugs continues to grow. In professional baseball, some of the games greatest players of all-time including the

Syringes are the most common form of taking performance-enchaning drugs.

home run leader Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and Garry Sheffield among many others have been connected to drug-usage. This has resulted in some of the games greatest players not receiving the recognition they would deserve, including induction into the baseball Hall of Fame as the New York Times points out. Many players are suspended in the major US sports each year for positive drug tests and they will forever be tarnished with that stigma. Although there are surely players who slip through the cracks, the progressive nature of drug testing has enabled governing bodies to catch the majority of the offenders. In can be said then, that these players suffer from another Machiavellian principle of “dirty hands”. This means that they are doing something ethically wrong like using performance-enhancing drugs hoping for something ethically desirable like a very successful athletic career. Machiavelli describes a situation in which the way of achieving success does not matter once you attain your goals, but as countless Olympic and professional athletes can attest, you must use great discretion when applying this theory.

In the context of politics, Machiavelli’s ideas on “dirty hands” and ends justifying the means of attaining something are very applicable. There are successful leaders in history that have used techniques many would consider out of line, but still been successful leaders. In sports, however, the only way of justifying the end result of competitive success is through the means of hard work and practice. As countless athletes in every sport continue to illustrate, no way of achieving desirable athletic success ever includes immoral means like performance-enhancing drugs.