Subscribe in a reader

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Why It Matters

Chuck Klosterman has written an interesting and provocative essay that originally ran in the March 26th issue of ESPN: The Magazine and is now available online. In it, he makes a number of points concerning the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in the NFL, but most of the attention that I've seen paid to it concerns his assertion that

It can be strongly argued that the most important date in the history of rock music was Aug. 28, 1964. This was the day Bob Dylan met the Beatles in New York City's Hotel Delmonico and got them high.

Obviously, a lot of people might want to disagree with this assertion, but the artistic evidence is hard to ignore. The introduction of marijuana altered the trajectory of the Beatles' songwriting, reconstructed their consciousness and prompted them to make the most influential rock albums of all time. After the summer of 1964, the Beatles started taking serious drugs, and those drugs altered their musical performance. Though it may not have been their overt intent, the Beatles took performance-enhancing drugs. And this is germane to sports for one reason: Absolutely no one holds it against them. No one views "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" as "less authentic" albums, despite the fact that they would not (and probably could not) have been made by people who weren't on drugs.

He uses this line of argument as a basis for saying that using performance enhancing drugs may be at least understandable, if not permissible, in the NFL. He draws no hard-and-fast conclusions, except to say that this is something that fans will have to make judgments about in the future. Fair enough. It's an interesting article and good reading, as well.

However, I'd like to take issue with a couple of points that Mr. Klosterman makes.

First of all, I think that it's rather facile to refer to the drugs taken by the Beatles as "performance-enhancing." There is no evidence that many or any of their songs were written while the composer or composers were stoned and the whole idea of someone being able to write a coherent song while tripping on acid is absurd. They didn't use the drugs to enhance performance, but to alter perception. And the truth of the matter is that they in no way smoked a bone or dropped a tab in order to make themselves better musicians. They did it because they thought it was fun and, in John's case, it made it easier to handle a success he felt inside that he both did and didn't deserve.

Second, he is comparing apples and oranges. Art is not sport and sport is not art. Art is not a competition. Artists create in order to create, not in order to win. There is no winning or losing, just success or failure, and that is experienced on a very personal level in regard to each specific work.

Performance-enhancing drugs should not be allowed in the NFL for the same reason that we do not allow corked bats in baseball or let boxers clutch rolls of nickels: It's cheating. The assumption behind every sporting event is that everyone involved has an equal chance in terms of equipment and playing surface. The difference comes from superior skill and a certain amount of luck. When steroids and human growth hormone enter a sport, the so-called level playing field becomes a field of ridges and rises. As George Orwell put it, all are equal, but some are more equal than others.

This undercuts the fundamental assumptions behind athletics. Sure, it's an entertainment, and it's mostly about money, and the players, while highly paid, are chewed up and spit out with extraordinary disregard. However, part of what makes it entertaining is the notion that some players are more adept than others, that some teams are better coached and are more cohesive units. Performance-enhancing drugs undercut all of that. They reduce any sport to a competition between pharmacies. Is this player better than that one or does he just have a better connection?

Two more small points about the Beatles. First, we can't know what kind of records they would have made without pot and LSD and heroin. Given the extraordinary growth their work had already showed before meeting Dylan, we can assume that they would have made great records anyway, because that's what they did. Second, their meeting with Dylan was not their introduction into the world of illicit drugs. They took prellies by the handful in Hamburg, uppers given to them by a bouncer named Horst so that they could play eight- and twelve-hour sets. So, if Mr. Klosterman wants to give credit where credit is due, he should skip the fashionable Mr. Dylan and go straight to Horst Fascher.