Spirit, Sport and Steroids

Q. Is it ethical for pro athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs and treatments?

A. Before we relate specifically to hormones and the like, we need to clarify the Jewish attitude towards sports in general. At first glance, the various Jewish sources on competitive sports seem like a confusing mix of attitudes. However, a more thoughtful look will enable us to see that there is actually a remarkably consistent point of view.

Some sources make sports sound very positive. For example, the Shulchan Arukh (the authoritative Code of Jewish Law) states that even though running and haste are usually forbidden on Shabbat, which is a day of rest, “youngsters who delight in jumping and running” may do so, as this is a fulfillment of the commandment to make the Sabbath a delight. Likewise it is permissible to play ball. (1)

Yet the Jerusalem Talmud tells us that at the time of the rebellion against the Romans, a particular town was judged for destruction partially because the residents used to play ball! (2) And in another place the Talmud identifies the Roman athletic games as the “seat of the scoffers” mentioned in the Psalms (1:1). (3)

The resolution of this paradox is very simple. Sports and games are a positive thing, sometimes even a mitzvah when they are an occasional recreation for enjoyment and health. Note that the Shulchan Arukh refers to youngsters who delight in their activity. A healthy mind and spirit thrive in a healthy and happy body.

But when a mere game becomes an obsession or a way of life, it becomes an obstacle to the life of the spirit. The commentators explain that ball-players were condemned because they came to neglect Torah study. And the games of the Romans were not merely a pastime; they were elevated to a social ideal, and bloodshed of animals and even of people was permitted in the name of “sport”.

The clear conclusion is that participating in sports is preferable to viewing them, and that professional sports leagues are especially problematic. But I don’t deny that even professional sports can remain fun games, if they are clean and sportsmanlike and the athletes keep in mind that after all it is only a game.

However, when participants begin to experiment with potentially dangerous substances in order to improve their performance, it’s clear that the attitude towards sport has moved beyond fun and games. Baseball is no more fun and absorbing today than it was two generations ago, before steroids were widespread. The enjoyment of sport is in a fair and sportsmanlike competition among athletes who are trying above all to get the most out of their individual God-given ability. By the same token, women’s sports are no less interesting (and no less profitable) than men’s sports, even though women are not generally able to compete against men.

I can’t condemn an individual athlete who uses treatments in a legal way to improve performance; professional athletes, like everybody else, need to make a living. But I do condemn a system which often distorts the meaning of sport, turning it from a healthy and enjoyable pastime into a potentially damaging and competitive obsession.

Strict anti-doping rules, strictly enforced, will make athletics more fun and healthful for body and soul, and for participants and spectators alike.

SOURCE: (1) Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 301:2, 308:45. (2) Yerushalmi Taanit 4:5; see also Eikhah Rabba on Eikhah 2:2. (3) Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 18b.