By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
- The typical way to dissuade athletes from doping is to emphasize the negative effects, such as being banned from your sport or permanent health issues
- However, new research shows that appealing to an athlete’s moral compass could be an effective way to reduce doping
It’s estimated that a substantial number of athletes in all age groups use performance enhancing substances (PES). Some surveys of high school age athletes have shown anabolic steroid use reported by 3%, and other types of PES use as high as 30% by male professional cyclists. It seems that PES use affects all age groups, many sports, males, and females.
Most reasonable sports medicine specialists and sports administrators agree that it’s a good idea to limit or eliminate PES use in athletes but actually doing that is a big challenge. Athletes may feel tremendous pressure to produce results, prompting some to turn to PES. The technology behind PES is frequently far advanced compared to the technology used to detect them.
It turns out that one effective means of reducing PES use could be completely non-technical: athletes who have a strong moral compass are far less likely to use PES, regardless of the pressure felt in their sport.
Here’s a recently published scientific study, conducted by the University of Birmingham in England, and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). They studied 1500 elite soccer players and outlined two hypothetical situations. In the first scenario, the athletes were asked to imagine they were completely healthy but trying to improve their performance after some bad results. In the second scenario they were asked to envision possibly using PES when coming back from a serious injury. Following each scenario, they were asked to indicate how likely they were to take the banned substance if they were in that situation.
In both situations, many athletes were able to separate themselves from possible consequences of doping. Athletes indicated they would use PES if there was a low chance of being caught, and if it would help them personally, help the team, or because other athletes were already doping. Essentially, if you could find a way to cheat without feeling guilty about it then you were likely to consider cheating.
The researchers were also interested in finding out what factors might reduce these justifications for cheating. The key factor that appears to protect athletes from doping is “moral identity”. This means how important it is to the player to be a moral person, and how strong their moral values, such as being fair or honest, is. Those players who had a strong moral identity did not use justifications for doping, expected to feel more guilt for doping, and ultimately were less likely to dope. They were also likely to consider effects of being caught cheating on their team and family.
I find this study interesting because it provides a new twist in how we educate athletes about PES use. Typically, we emphasize the penalties for being caught (e.g. banned from sport, monetary fines, etc.) and the negative health aspects (e.g. permanent health problems). It might be more powerful to appeal to an athlete’s sense of fairness, especially if it may affect their family or team.
But, I have to say I’m skeptical. Will a “Lance Armstrong type” of athlete care at all about the morality of cheating? Doubtful, but there’s absolutely no harm in trying to teach these concepts. Maybe we’ll find that there are more athletes with a strong moral compass than I think.