Savulescu, who directs the Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics at Oxford University and holds degrees in both medicine and bioethics, says that we should drop the ban on performance-enhancing drugs, and allow athletes to take whatever they want, as long as it is safe for them to do so.
Savulescu proposes that instead of trying to detect whether an athlete has taken drugs, we should focus on measurable indications of whether an athlete is risking his or her health. So, if an athlete has a dangerously high level of red blood cells as a result of taking erythropoietin (EPO), he or she should not be allowed to compete. The issue is the red blood cell count, not the means used to elevate it.
I'll leave it to doctors and scientists to figure out if this is actually plausible, but given how many football players have been able to perform at a high level in their playing days -- which suggests that they were perfectly healthy at the time -- only to get sick or die young a decade or so after retirement leads me to believe that, ethics aside, this would be disastrous. Indeed, if there were some medically and scientifically definitive evidence regarding how safe or unsafe various PEDs were for athletes, don't you think that evidence would have been trotted out somewhere over the course of the six gajillion articles written about steroids and baseball? We simply don't know the long term effects in anything approaching a comprehensive fashion, and I am dubious that we could know the risk any given athlete was facing based on a snapshot blood test taken during his athletic prime.
That aside, who exactly would be in the business of certifying that any given athlete was OK to compete, with "OK" being defined by Savulescu as that athlete being shown to not be risking their health? The leagues? Don't you think that Roger Goodell, David Stern, and, yes, even Bud Selig are savvy enough to see the sinkhole of liability that such a certification process would create? If such a system were in place in the 70s, John Matuzak's family would own beachfront property right now.
But perhaps Savulescu's most ridiculous assertion is this:
To those who say that this will give drug users an unfair advantage, Savulescu replies that now, without drugs, those with the best genes have an unfair advantage. They must still train, of course, but if their genes produce more EPO than ours, they are going to beat us in the Tour de France, no matter how hard we train. Unless, that is, we take EPO to make up for our genetic deficiency. Setting a maximum level of red blood cells actually levels the playing field by reducing the impact of the genetic lottery. Effort then becomes more important than having the right genes.
It's not ridiculous for scientific reasons. Genetics matter, probably way more than most folks in a putatively egalitarian and democratic society are comfortable acknowledging. No, what makes it ridiculous is the use of the term "unfair." Sure, we can get philosophical about what truly is or is not unfair, but the average sports fan -- and remember, without fans, pro sports don't happen -- simply doesn't view natural genetic advantages as something that is "unfair" or in need of remedy. People who hate Barry Bonds do so because they think he's a jerk and they think he cheated. They don't hate him because he's Bobby Bonds' kid, nor do they consider the advantage that he has received by accident of birth to be all that problematic. Probably because for every Barry Bonds there is a Dale Berra or a Lance Neikro.
Lest I get too snippy at Savulescu, I will remind myself that he, like Singer, is bioethicist, and bioethicists are supposed to think the big thoughts about this kind of stuff. As big thoughts go, however, this one strikes me as lacking.