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Drugs in Sports: No Outrage?

The three-martini lunch in America is a social relic. Smoking in most workplaces and restaurants is banned.

So when will the cultural shift that made these unsavory practices un-cool also spread to the world of sports - where doping allegations are tarnishing the reputations of both Olympic track stars and baseball greats?

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This week the players' union for Major League Baseball is grappling with imposing tougher testing for steroids, a fallout of a San Francisco federal grand jury investigating BALCO, the Bay Area lab charged with distributing steroids to top athletes.

No question, baseball needs a more stringent testing regimen. But the issue of performance-enhancing drugs goes far beyond baseball, and even beyond the critical role of testing, which has evolved into a cat-and-mouse game of steroids-users trying to outsmart steroids-catchers.

What's needed is a shift in the kind of thinking that might convince a baseball player to build his home-run record on drug-enhanced hits, or a sprinter to run for the gold with drug assistance because of the perception that everyone is doing it.

The win-at-all-costs mindset reaches even to young athletes' parents, who call the hotline at the National Center for Drug Free Sport to ask which drugs will help their children get college athletic scholarships.

Deep forces are at work here, especially today's "quick-fix" attitude that promotes everything from Botox to diet pills to extreme makeovers. So, too, is the influence of big money, celebrity worship, and ever more exciting and risky entertainment.

These are gigantic ships to turn around in a society. A manageable place to begin is with sports itself.

Like the antitobacco campaign, the antidoping drive must reach down to youth and across to enablers (coaches, trainers, owners, parents). It must also involve a significant education and research effort (the US Anti-Doping Agency's $2 million annual budget just doesn't cut it).

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The campaign must hit head-on the argument of those who support performance-enhancing drugs: that this is the dawn of a "juice era" in which technology merely fine-tunes the machine of the human body, and that sport, above all, is entertainment.

Let's assume, for a moment, steroids were legal for athletes. Some essential aspects of sports would vanish. The level playing field that allows fair competition would give way to a competition of drugs. Not all athletes would want to use steroids for health or ethical reasons - and they would be at a disadvantage. Users would start down the slippery slope of riskier drugs, warns sports ethicist Thomas Murray, perhaps risking death.

Right now, the voices yelling that sports is about entertainment (more home runs! more gold medals!) seems louder than the voice speaking to the virtues of sportsmanship (hard work, discipline, teamwork, natural talent).

But ultimately, the virtue of sport is more satisfying because it reflects human progress. That's why it's important to lay out this alternate, moral universe. It appeals to longstanding values that people, once they think about it, really want.