What the NBA can learn from cycling

The panels, papers and presentations unfurled at Sloan over the past seven years -- and the groundbreaking analytics they’ve helped deliver -- have changed the way we think about sports. Seldom does the dialogue explicitly delve into questions of ethics, however, making the analytics arms race analogous to the real thing: numbers, like missiles, are means to ends. Morality is better parsed from pulpits and ivory towers than conference podiums.

Except when it comes to doping. Over the past few decades, the issue of PEDs in sports has established a moral consensus: Cheating -- and therefore doping -- is wrong. Always has been, always will be.

But what if livelihoods and level playing fields depend on it?

Such was the frame for “Lance, Doping, and You: The Power (and Peril) of Win-At-All-Costs Culture,” a Saturday panel moderated by Henry Abbott and featuring investigative journalist and “The Secret Race” co-author Daniel Coyle.

In a conversation that veered into morbid corners rarely approached at Sloan, Coyle laid bare cycling’s still-festering pocks, and presented cautionary tales about how winning at all costs will end up costing us all.

Coyle’s tales of how far Armstrong, rival Tyler Hamilton and others have gone in the service of stage wins highlight the “dark circus” lying in wait for any sport lacking proper transparency: Hamilton avoiding the knocks from a would-be tester by belly-crawling out of sight; Lance Armstrong hiring his Spanish gardener to leave doses of erythropoietin (EPO) ahead of Tour stops; early doping adopters dying in their sleep, blood so thick from EPO that their hearts simply stopped pumping; cyclists suffering through sleepless fevers because of “bad blood.”

In light of Coyle’s macabre accounts, it’s easy to assume moral indifference. If cheating is done only by those with the financial or social means to do so, why not legalize all of it? We balance risk and reward with our own bodies every day, after all. Why shouldn’t athletes at the highest level of sport be granted the same?

Then there’s the issue of a wildly disparate power structure, where money and access multiply a “chess match of connections” only the sport’s elite can play with all the pieces. As the practice trickles down to sport's middle class, a sense of moral right begins to take hold.

“They feel like they’re doing something noble,” Coyle posited. “They feel like they’re leveling the playing field.”

When asked by Abbott how prevalent he believed doping in the NFL and NBA to be, Coyle’s response needed little qualification:

“A lot more than people think.”

Thanks to a combination of curious myths (“PEDs wouldn’t help a player the same way they do in football,” etc.) and circumspect testing, the NBA has thus far managed to avoid serious scandal. But as more refined testing in sports like cycling bequeaths stronger, safer, more undetectable pills and potions, the temptation for players is one that will inevitably be exercised -- and most likely already has.

For an instructive gauge of sports fandom’s moral fervor, one need look no further than last month’s Baseball Hall of Fame vote, where exactly zero of the 37 candidates -- more than a few of whom have weathered accusations of doping -- garnered the votes necessary for induction. “Witch hunt” might be hyperbolic, but it’s certainly an apt analogy; society’s demonization of doping has become so aggressive that even players who have never so much as been implicated are finding themselves under suspicion.

Basketball has yet to suffer baseball’s doping plague, but if and when it hits, the NBA may stand to lose all. But should it? Should any sport or any athlete, for that matter? For all the millions directed into BALCO’s bank accounts, society deals Victor Conte comparatively light scorn compared to the athletes sacrificed for the real rogue’s ramparts. The obvious answer, of course, is as much about myth as economics: Investments that are emotional and financial -- and sports most certainly are that -- are the ripest for rage and irrationality. The result is polluted discourse, where stigma risks clouding any possible path toward mutual understanding.

Athletes don’t dope because they want to; that’s a secondary concern. They do it because they feel they have to. Because not doing so means slipping out of the starting lineup, off the roster or out of a dream. In a fraternity where bending one’s morals trumps blowing whistles -- and sports can certainly be that -- the temptation to choose longevity at any cost can quake the body even when the drugs are coursing. When the athlete sees how marvelously the stuff works, stopping becomes a near impossible proposition. Coyle’s remarks on the psychological damage exacted on cycling’s more reluctant adherents -- to say nothing of their families and associates -- illustrated this well.

“These guys have to get every possible thing right every step of the way to pull it off,” he said. “That takes its toll.”

For Coyle, transparency remains essential to change; we ought to know who has been cheating. But the why is just as important. Without it -- without cathartics and confessionals from the athletes themselves -- the tendency is too often outrage. And nothing stable ever springs from that seed.

If the hope that sports will one day be doping-free amounts to tilting at windmills, Coyle’s Don Quixote -- “It’s going to take someone stepping forward and announcing, ‘I’m clean!’” -- can’t ride in soon enough. Perhaps that spark will come from the NBA, a league defined more than any other by the power of individuated personality. But such heroism comes in second to what Coyle sees as the true seeds of change: we the fans.

“At a moment when we can no longer afford to not talk about this stuff, part of dealing with these realities is to not villainize,” said Coyle. “It’s to have a conversation about culture that’s totally transparent, to where we can trust what we see on the field.”