What Do Lance Armstrong, Dopers and Nazis Have in Common?
Wyatt Earp shot from the hip. He was a hero. So do I shoot from the hip sometimes? Bring me the target.
Last week on our news blog I took a couple hip shots in the neighborhood of Lance Armstrong. I said I hated him. I'll still call that shot a bull's-eye.
But later I fired off a little birdshot at the people who rushed to defend Armstrong in our comment section. Comparing the Armstrong story to a drug bust gone bad in the news recently, I said, "I can take you down to Dixon Circle right now and find people there who will defend their own dope dealers."
So isn't it wonderful that we still have this luxury called print, a newspaper, a thing that has deadlines, editors, publishers, annual personnel reviews and various other incentives toward thoughtful reflection? I welcome the opportunity to look back over the general area I was shooting at on the blog last week and see if we can come up with any perforated Cub Scout caps or other clues to bad aim.
And the question again? Because I'm not going back on Armstrong. He's a cheater. Don't tell me the rules should be different. Don't tell me how many other people cheated. Armstrong cheated. We need to put that question to bed.
The other question, though: Was it totally crazy of me to suggest a nexus between athletes who use illegal performance-enhancing drugs and people who use illegal recreational drugs? And just to get all of the race-card, class warfare, crazy bullshit out of it, even though that's my favorite part, let's not use dog-whistle phrases like "street drugs."
Any and all get-high drugs. That's what I'm talking about. Is there any connection between get-high drugs and any and all do-better drugs?
Last week I talked to Dr. James Muntz in Houston, the team doctor to the Houston Astros, Rockets and Texans. Muntz frequently is consulted and quoted on high school sports doping issues. He said first that middle and high school students do use performance enhancing drugs. The numbers are significant but not epidemic.
"I was just at a cardiology conference up in Washington, D.C." Muntz said. "The statistics are 8 percent, half for performance and half for looks. The boys do it to muscle up and look better."
He said middle and high school students are less likely to use injectable steroids than college athletes. "Probably at that age most of them prefer pills. Some of them use asthma medicine, Monster Drink, Red Bull. All of that stuff is performance-enhancing."
I asked him if he thought the performance-enhancing drugs used by kids pose a threat to their physical well-being. He sort of said no. And a little bit yes.
"Some of it's not just physical," Muntz said. "Some of it is psychological. With big doses of caffeine people can get irritable, moody.
"Realistically, probably most of the drugs aren't particularly bad for physical effects, but I would say the psychological effects could be more harmful and long-lasting than the physical effects. But I don't think the country is coming apart at the seams."
So, reality check. Before I made my calls, I watched an old PBS special on East German women swimmers in the '70s and '80s who were shot full of testosterone by their coaches, grew beards and turned into men. I asked him about it. Muntz said he thinks we are much more sophisticated now about performance-enhancing drugs. Even if there is a certain ambient level of abuse, we don't have to worry about all of our little girl athletes turning into guys.
Another expert I talked to was Professor Jim Quinn at the University of North Texas, who teaches criminology and corrections with a focus on drugs, brain chemistry, addiction and recovery.
I asked him to talk about a nexus — or not — between juicing by athletes and recreational drug use. He told me it was a reach. But he seemed to think there was a reach worth making in there somewhere.
Quinn could offer me no empirical biological evidence that blood doping leads to drug addiction. But he said there can be an underlying cognitive and moral connection.
With blood doping, he said, "You're rationalizing. You're basing everything on self-interest. You're flying in the face of societal norms."
I almost interrupted to say, "No, professor, that's journalism. We're supposed to be talking about drug abuse." But I held my tongue, and a good thing I did, because then he said something very interesting.
"I think these highly competitive people, athletes specifically, are in all probability running very, very high levels of all sorts of brain chemicals, and a lot of those chemicals are feel-good chemicals like dopamine.
"I don't want to say people get addicted, but they get habituated to those levels, and that can come off as obsession with winning, winning at any cost, that kind of approach. They have an obsession with keeping those levels high, and they think they're being rational when they're not. So there's a parallel to drug abuse there."
It's the same thing rock stars say. You can't imagine the high of being out there on that stage. You never want to come down. So you don't.
I spent time last week reading about another form of performance-enhancing drug, the kind used to make people smarter. There is a ton of testimony out there to the effect that our entire society is awash in Adderall.
A recent New York Times piece quoted a Drug Enforcement Agency agent saying, "We're seeing it all across the United States." But DEA guys say that about aspirin.
The Times also quoted medical experts with very scary things to say about deleterious effects on the developing adolescent brain. But even the Times couldn't come up with any really overwhelming empirical evidence to support the idea of contagion or epidemic.
The danger there is that we in the news business come up with a new catastrophic epidemic that's going to kill everybody about once a month. How come we're not all dead from killer bees by now? They had their own movie. I suspect we now have entire generations of young adults recently arrived in the workplace who don't even know what a killer bee is.
So at the end of my week of reading, chatting on the phone and wiggling my fingers through my target, I was forced to conclude that perhaps a few pellets did go astray. Please call me if your pet has been draggy.
I do not believe that there is any hard wiring between professional athletes who dope their blood and regular people who dope themselves. I am also forced to recall an amazing discovery I made after I myself quit drinking: Apparently there are people out there who can handle their Stroh's beer just fine, thank you.
Previously I had been concerned about Stroh's abuse and the nation. It turned out it was pretty much just me. So by this same token I need to acknowledge that there are plenty of people out there who probably can handle their dope. Depending. Let's not get all technical.
But now we arrive at the edge of a very tall cliff over which I intend to leap. Take my hand or not. If so, we will be flying together, you and I, head-first into Nazi territory.
In a 1975 article called "Fascinating Fascism" in The New York Review of Books, the late Susan Sontag took apart some of the lies and fabulism then current about the Nazi filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl, who was enjoying a kind of popular rehabilitation. Reifenstahl died in 2003.
When I read that piece years ago, I was interested not so much in Reifenstahl but in the answer Sontag supplied to another question that had plagued me since I was a little boy. Why did the Nazis always have the coolest uniforms?
Did they really? Or was it just Hollywood? And if the latter, why would Hollywood do that? Why would they make the Nazis look hipper, sharper, more fashionable and just downright more cool than G.I. Joe?
I even felt guilty for thinking the Nazis had better fashion sense. What was wrong with me?
But Sontag said it was true: "SS uniforms were stylish, well-cut, with a touch (but not too much) of eccentricity. Compare the rather boring and not very well-cut American army uniform: jacket, shirt, tie, pants, socks and lace-up shoes — essentially civilian clothes no matter how bedecked with medals and badges."
In our hatred of Nazism, Sontag said we had blinded ourselves to a great truth. National Socialism, she said, expressed "an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under the other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders)."
So what is my leap and when do we hit the ground? Now. Prepare to land head-first.
Beauty, athletic attainment beyond a human capacity unimproved by dope, a worship of aestheticism, the belief that life must be the pursuit of human perfection at any cost and by whatever shortcuts possible: These tie Armstrong, our hero-cheater archetype, to the dopeheads.
We are creating a society in which the worth and nature of the individual, the value of the soul itself, is junk next to stardom. That's what Armstrong really stands for. Forget what he did to his body. To be the star, he extinguished his honor. Some of those commenters last week thought he struck the right bargain. And that's what we need to talk about.
How's your noggin?
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