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The Demon of Drugs

By Emma Thomas | Experience and Other Evidence Essays

Len Bias is considered by many to be the most talented basketball player to have ever played for the Maryland Terrapins. Twenty-fourth year Duke Coach, and Maryland rival, Mike Krzyzewski, described Bias as “an amazing athlete with great competitiveness,” likening him to the great Michael Jordan (Ryan). Bias’ death from a cocaine overdose, less than two days after being drafted to play in the NBA by the Boston Celtics, shook America, changing college athletics beyond recognition and instigating a period of academic reforms, random drug tests and increased coach responsibilities. Devastatingly, Bias’ drug-related death was not an isolated incident; Yusko et al. cite “alcohol and drug [use] by students … [as] one of the most serious problems facing colleges today,” adding that “research suggests that a high rate of substance use persists among the student athlete population” (281). Repeated and random drug testing of college student-athletes is therefore necessary to promote the health and wellbeing of student-athletes, to preserve the integrity of sport and to maximise the opportunity for student-athletes to be viewed as positive role models.

While performance-enhancing drugs can, in some cases, provide a boost to improve athletic performance or the athlete’s ability to train, these perceived benefits come at an enormous price; the health of the athlete. For instance, ephedrine, a drug used to reduce fatigue and promote self-confidence and exhilaration, has a reputation for side effects including hypertension, heart arrhythmias, anxiety, tremor, paranoid psychoses and myocardial infarction. Another example is anabolic steroids, a class of hormone related to testosterone, which helps the build up of muscle tissue. However, side effects are numerous: cardiovascular disease, hypertension, myocardial infarction, masculinisation, mood disorders including anxiety, depression, hostility, and paranoia, increased irritability and aggression, and a significant risk of suicide (Sjöqvist, Garle, and Rane 1874). When faced with this frightening list of severe side-effects, it can be hard to understand what could possibly drive college, and even high school. student-athletes, to use performance enhancing drugs. However, with their scholarships, athletic dreams, educations and careers dependent on their athletic capabilities, it is understandable that student-athletes feel great pressure to perform well. Balancing intense daily practices, extensive lifting and conditioning schedules, competition and a full academic course-load only exacerbates the issue. Add to that the nature of competitive athletics, where participants are constantly pushing the physical and mental boundaries of the human body in search of new levels of performance or success, and it is easy to see why any possible short-cut seems favourable, regardless of the long-term consequences. Having personally experienced the rigours of college athletics, I can empathise with student-athletes who might find themselves in a position where they feel compelled to use performance-enhancing drugs. Given that pressure can lead to poor judgement, I feel extremely lucky to compete at a university where the health of student-athletes is paramount and drug education and regulation is a high priority.

There are a significant number of cases in which young athletes have suffered fatal consequences from drug use. Taylor Hooton, a high school baseball player from Texas, is a prime example of how pressure can lead to costly poor decisions. When his coach told him that he “needed to be bigger in order to effectively compete in his senior year,” he, like others on his team, turned to anabolic steroids to help increase muscle mass. Within months, Taylor was suffering from depression and severe irritability as a result of steroid abuse.  In July 2003, he took his own life. The story of Efrain Marrero is frighteningly similar. A successful and hard-working 19-year-old college football player, Efrain started taking steroids in order to switch from playing offensive linebacker to middle linebacker. Plagued by psychosis and depression, he sought help from his family and doctor, and stopped using steroids. Three weeks later, he committed suicide (The Taylor Hooton Foundation). The stories of Taylor and Efrain are testament to the huge risks associated with the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Yet perhaps worse is the fact that these deaths were entirely unnecessary and preventable; the simple act of regularly and randomly drug testing would have acted as a deterrent to use drugs, could have identified their use of steroids much earlier, and ultimately could have saved their lives.

While the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs are hard to refute, the death of Len Bias highlights that the risks posed by recreational drugs are equally high. Some people think that either all students should be tested for recreational drugs, or none should; some believe that student-athletes should not be subjected to additional testing when recreational drug use affects all students. However, as Yusko et al. testify, college student-athletes are at higher risk of drug use than their non-athlete counterparts (281). Furthermore, in an environment where the student-athlete’s physical and psychological wellbeing is entrusted to the coaching staff and physical therapist of their institution, failing to drug test student-athletes on a regular and random basis should be considered negligent. This is particularly true given that student-athletes are required to get regular physicals to minimise injury risk, monthly weigh-ins to check for disordered eating and even meetings with sports psychologists and academic advisors to ensure there are no psychological or learning difficulties. Thus considered, to not screen for drug use would be inconsistent and contrary to the responsibilities athletic staff have with regard to student-athlete health.

However, student-athlete welfare is just one of several factors that influence opinion on drug use. For many athletes and non-athletes, the pinnacle of sporting achievement is epitomised by the Olympic Motto, “Citius, altius, fortius,” which translated from Latin means “Higher, faster, stronger” (“Olympic Movement”). It is this quest for ever better sporting outcomes that has driven athletes to the ultimate physical, mental, scientific and technological levels. Yet alongside this pursuit of excellence stands the Olympic Charter:

The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. (“Olympic Movement”)

By this definition, it is the way in which the sport is played that is important. This view is supported by Robert Simon, whose book Fair Play: Sports, Values and Society discusses the relative importance of fair play and winning, concluding that sport plays an important moral role in society. He suggests that it is impossible to succeed in sport unless that success is achieved in an honourable and just manner. This necessitates a system where the primary requirements for success are natural talent and hard work. Furthermore, for success to be honourable and just, all athletes must be competing on a level playing field. For both of these criteria to be attained, it is necessary for performance-enhancing drugs not only to be banned, but for this restriction to be reinforced with repeated no-notice drug testing (201). For me, one of the most attractive aspects of sport is the knowledge that I am competing in a fair and moral way. However, if I knew that opponents were using performance-enhancing drugs, I would find it extremely difficult to stand by my morals, in the knowledge that however talented I was, or how hard I worked, I would have little chance of winning. Drug testing is therefore essential to protect the honour of sport.

Athletes hold an influential position in society as role models, particularly to children and teenagers. Rising obesity levels in Western societies are causing huge increases in the occurrence of preventable but lethal diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Athletics play a vital role in addressing this by helping increase the activity levels of the general population. Indeed, in many respects, athletes have the ideal attributes of role models; they are healthy, hard-working, confident and dedicated. When coaching aspiring field hockey players, I have noticed the high esteem in which both players and their parents hold student-athletes. Seeing children go out and buy the jersey worn by our team, or the stick a particular athlete uses, is evidence that children copy those that they admire. Indeed, the parents of Taylor Hooton told Congress that their son was “not only seeking to bulk up, but do it in a way that emulated successful professional athletes” (Livingstone). As a result of the fact that young, impressionable people view athletes as role models and imitate their behaviour, it is vital that athletes conduct themselves in an appropriate manner. The use of either performance-enhancing or recreational drugs by athletes should therefore be considered unacceptable by society, and thus drug testing should be required as both a deterrent and as a monitoring system.

While the health implications of performance-enhancing and recreational drug use in athletes are severe, it could be suggested that a well-informed individual should be allowed to make his or her own decisions about what to put into his or her body. However, when such decisions influence not only themselves, but the health and wellbeing of generations to come, such actions should be considered utterly inappropriate. Furthermore, when such actions are contrary to the ethics of sport as understood by the majority of participants, they should also be considered unacceptable. When lack of knowledge and support can and does cost lives, it is essential for college student-athletes to be randomly and regularly drug tested by their athletic institutions to promote awareness of the dangers of drug use and to ensure anti-doping rules are being enforced.

Works Cited


Livingstone, Seth. “Fight against steroids gaining muscle in high school athletics.” Sports Weekly in USA Today. 8 June 2005. <> 11 March 2009.

Official Website of the Olympic Movement. 2009. International Olympic Committee. 11 March 2009 <>

Ryan, Bob. “What might have been.” The Boston Globe. 18 November 2003. <> 7 March 2009.

Simon, Robert. Fair Play: Sports, Values and Society. Boulder: Westview Press, 1991.

Sjöqvist, Folke, Garle, Mats and Rane, Anders. “Use of doping agents, particularly anabolic steroids, in sports and society.” The Lancet. 371.9627 (2008): 1872-1882. Academic Search Premier. 11 March 2009. <>

The Taylor Hooton Foundation. 2003. <> 11 March 2009.

Yusko, David A., Buckman, Jennifer F., White, Helene R. and Pandina, Robert J. “Alcohol, Tobacco, Illicit Drugs, and Performance Enhancers: A Comparison of Use by College Student Athletes and Non-athletes.” Journal of American College Health. 57.3 (2008): 281-289. Academic Search Premier. 11 March 2009. <>