During Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Bush urged professional sports (store?) owners and university athletic directors to institute policies and regulations designed to eliminate athlete steroid use.
Taken by itself, the President's plea is a sound one for several reasons. Many athletes choose to use steroids in their quest to perform better than the competition, whether for the purpose of winning or landing a more lucrative contract. Similarly, coaches, whose job it is to provide victories, often let the athletes in their charge get away with using steroids.
But in the wake of recent athlete deaths from drugs like Ephedera, as well as the various other documented health risks associated with steroids, it is clear that the potential improvements steroids bring to the level of play are outweighed by the health risks and other external costs.
Bush was quite right to point out that athletes are scrutinized closely by America's youth. When an athlete uses steroids, he or she is sending youths the message that it is all right to take dangerous and potentially lethal shortcuts in order to achieve success.
While the debate as to whether or not athletes should strive to be passable role models still rages on, children nonetheless learn from their athletic heroes. When athletes poison their bodies for the sake of victory, they are imparting ethically unsound values on all those who watch and believe in them.
The use of steroids distorts the spirit of athletic competition because it unnecessarily emphasizes getting ahead over hard work, a pillar of athleticism since the days of ancient civilizations. Throughout history, the model athletes have been those with the self-discipline to work harder than anyone else for their success.
It may be an overused cliché to say that playing a sport or training for a competition builds character. It might also be a cliché to point out the truth in clichés, but common sense dictates that participating in athletics no longer builds character if steroids undermine hard work and camaraderie.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is one of the country's best athletic role models, not because of his talent, but because of the proportion of his success that is due to his unwavering work ethic. Similarly, cycling folk hero Lance Armstrong proved that relentless training could not only overcome the physical hardships of cancer treatment but could also bring home routine victories in the Tour de France.
There is little disagreement as to the dangers of steroids, and parents should be grateful that the President has lent his influential voice to the effort to minimize their use. At the same time, it is more than a little bit strange that Bush chose the State of the Union Address to make his stand.
While many Americans choose to make sports a large part of their life, they must remember that sports pale in importance when compared to every other item in Bush's speech, as well as many more issues that he didn't mention. It was inappropriate of the President to place sports on the same level as our national energy policy or our need to create more jobs.
His decision sends the wrong signal to America because it makes sports out to be more than what they are. Sadly, the television media that covered the address played right along when they seamlessly cut to a close-up of Super Bowl-bound quarterback Tom Brady. While showing Brady lends power to the President's move to end steroid use, it also glorifies sports in an unnecessary and unhealthy way.
Bush should have made his anti-steroid pitch on another day in another setting. Instead, the power of his message is corrupted by the misperception that athletics is more than a secondary part of most Americans' lives.