The Economist: Athletes That Don’t Use PEDs Are Fools

  • Matt Rudnitsky

Roger Goodell HGH Steroids

A week ago, I argued that the NFL should legalize HGH. Part of my argument was that players are currently incentivized to use PEDs, and legalization would help curb that incentive. My main argument was that the NFL should do it for player safety, though, and I refrained from getting all economic-y on you guys. But The Economist did not, most likely because they’re The Economist, and Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell were just caught doping to move their legs faster.

We like their ideas, though their argument is a bit flawed and too simple.

The premise:

Professional sport is rife with drug-taking. Getting caught will get you banned, frequently for life. Yet people carry on doing it regardless. Why?

A good question to ask, though “rife” may be an exaggeration, since a very small portion of athletes have been caught using PEDs, and we have no idea how many are using, undetected.

Then, they introduce game theory, attempting to explain a player’s decision of doping vs. not doping.

The simplest game in game theory is “prisoner’s dilemma”. In the athletes’ version, both players will be better off if neither takes drugs, but because neither can trust the other, both have to take them to make sure they have a chance of winning.

Not entirely accurate because players have different skill levels, and thus, payoffs (and they can’t quantify the benefits/costs of PED use), but I get the point. If the guy next to you might be using, you’re incentivized to use. As The Economist points out, leagues understand this basic argument, and the presence of drug testing, in theory, changes the game so that players don’t use drugs.

…except, as The Economist points out, this doesn’t account for fans. And fans change everything. It’s all your fault.

In their view, the inspector has several reasons to skimp on testing. One is the cost. Another is the disruption it causes to the already complicated lives of the athletes. A third, though, is fear of how customers would react if more thorough testing did reveal near-universal cheating, which anecdotal evidence suggests that in some sports it might. Better to test sparingly, and expose from time to time what is apparently the odd bad apple, rather than do the job thoroughly and find the whole barrel is spoiled and your sport has suddenly vanished in a hailstorm of disqualifications.

OK, fine. It’s not your fault. It’s Roger Goodell’s fault. Bud Selig’s. The “inspectors,” and their reluctance to buy gadgets. Cost is an obvious argument, because instituting something like a Biological Passport would be expensive. Disrupting athletes lives makes sense, too. And the third argument… also spot-on. As we know, MLB was hurt a lot by this, and cycling probably even more so. The threat of lost fans given evidence of rampant PED use looms for all leagues.

This explains what I was saying, why the NFL is doing something seemingly illogical by not either: A) Legalizing HGH, or B) Testing for it. From our perspective, it makes no sense not to have one of these. But instead, the NFL don’t test for HGH, nor do they allow it. Idiocy to us, game theory to Professor Roger Goodell.

This attitude, however, would result in precisely the outcome testing is supposed to obviate. It would be back to the prisoner’s dilemma. Anyone who seriously wanted to win would have to cheat, even if his inclination was not to. In these circumstances it would take a saint to stay pure.

The point here: everyone is incentivized to dope. It’s a bit simplistic, as I said, because every player’s situation is unique, and we, nor they, know the full picture when it comes to the likelihood of getting caught. But it’s still an important point. Athletes are incentivized to dope. Thus, some, perhaps many, perhaps almost all, dope.

The Economist has a solution.

When the researchers turned their hypothesis into maths, it seemed to stand up. The only way out, the maths suggested, was for all tests, and their results, to be reported—whether negative or not. That would give customers a real sense of how thorough the search for doping was, and thus how widespread the practice. It would also help break the prisoner’s dilemma for the athletes.

It… sort of makes sense. It ignores the biggest problem — that scientists are probably still ahead of the tests — but it’s not a horrible idea. It would infiltrate the prisoner’s dilemma a bit.

I still say let NFLers use their HGH, but I understand that’s an unpopular view.

The authorities in any given sport would no doubt deny that Dr Buechel’s analysis applied to them. They would claim their testing regimes were adequate—and would probably truly believe it themselves. But human capacity for self-deception is infinite. It may thus be that the real guilty parties in sports doping are not those who actually take the drugs, but those who create a situation where only a fool would not.

Again, a bit of an overstatement, since every sport, player, drug and scientist are unique, and we have incomplete, unquantifiable information. But, again, the point is solid: commissioners suck, players aren’t evil for doping, and Roger Goodell should eat crow with salmonella sauce.