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Why Professional Athletes Use Performance Enhancing Drugs

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Seattle Mariners fans hold signs referring to a steroid suspension in 2015 of former New York Yankees designated hitter Alex Rodriguez. Photo: USA Today Sports

By Dr. Matthew Williams |

Sports fans witness the use of Performance Enhancement Drugs by all different types of professional athletes competing in various professional sports. The professional athletes who were caught using these drugs have had to pay a very hefty price. The professional athlete, however, has a limited career, which is heavily dependent on his or her physical skills. Often at some crossroads in his or her career, the athlete examines the risk versus the reward philosophy concerning the use of PEDs. These athletes have the competitive belief that winning is the ultimate goal of survival.

Most athletes were raised in a structured environment exclusively around sports, which deprived them of lessons learned from normal daily life. These individuals very seldom did chores around their home or had jobs in the local community. Most were usually surrounded by a “handler,” which is often a parent, family member, or coach. The handler made sure that the athlete made it to and from games, practices, and prepared their lunches. The handler also made sure their equipment and uniforms were cleaned and packed. By performing these duties, the handler deprived the athlete of typical daily life responsibilities.

When they turn professional, the athlete competes in the best stadiums with massive fans in attendance and extensive television viewership. They become part of a very selective fraternity; after all, they are the best of the best in the world. The professional athlete benefits from mega contracts that will allow them to live in big houses and drive expensive automobiles, along with additional miscellaneous perks and fame on and off the playing field. However, they will still depend on the handler for daily care and guidance.

A professional athlete’s career will last on average about eight to ten years, while the average professional athlete career in a collision sport will last on average three to five years. During their playing career, the professional athlete will be dealing with injuries, slowly declining athletic skills, and the most dreadful thought, the possibility of being released. At some point, the professional athlete will observe their body and athletic abilities diminish, and face reality for the first time in their life that their career could come to an end.

When this occurs, the professional athlete will contemplate ways to extend their careers, including taking performance-enhancing drugs. Their rationale will involve a myriad of different reasons, such as the playing field is no longer even. And everyone else is taking them, why shouldn’t I? I am not ready to retire yet, I have family obligations, and I am not prepared to go out into the real world, both mentally and financially. And finally, this is the only job I have ever had.

It is understandable why the professional athlete turns to use of performance enhancing drugs for survival. For some athletes, it is to provide longevity to their careers; for other athletes, it is a means to cope or recover from a debilitating injury. And for some, it is a requirement for a competitive advantage or to maintain a standard of performance. After all, the professional athlete has one objective, to play a sport for income and fame.

Dr. Matthew Williams is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

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