Vice Squad
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Steroids and Kids

Vice Squad is on the road, and has only a few minutes at a public library today. Probably not a good time to bring up a subject that we have studiously avoided in the past -- steroids in sports. (Radley has been posting and debating on this issue.) Our general approach to vice would suggest that if adults want to use steroids, there should be some not-too-onerous legal means of accommodating them. Transfer of steroids to kids could be forbidden, of course. But what about sports leagues, like Major League Baseball. As private businesses, can they make whatever decision they want to with regards to steroids?

Our interest in protecting kids can justify some collateral restrictions upon adults, such as the ban on transfers to youths that I mentioned above. For the "traditional vices" I do not think that this interest can justify prohibitions on adult use or vice activity, however -- and I believe that this is the case with steroids, too.

Nevertheless, I am not sure that a requirement that professional sports leagues ban steroid use would not be acceptable on the grounds of protecting kids. [I acknowledge the controversy over the extent and likelihood of potential harms from steroid use, and then there are issues with the enforceablity of any ban. If a ban on use by kids would be easy to enforce, then any controls on professional sports leagues, presumably, would have to be justified on other grounds. But what if the ban on kid steroid use were quite leaky?] If professional baseball allowed steroid use, promising young teen ballplayers, of whom only a handful would make it to the major leagues and perhaps most would not even make it into the minor leagues, would be faced with a difficult choice. To the extent that those drugs really are performance enhancing, then such kids will feel significant pressure to get a leg up on the competition by using steroids. In the limit, we have the usual positional externality story, where everyone uses steroids without affecting their relative ranking. Of course, the same would be true of major leaguers, too.

It is extremely hard for someone to become a professional athlete if that person was not training for that role at an early age. And professional athletics is a career that, unlike most office jobs, seems to capture the imagination of lots of kids. I also think (following J.S. Mill) that the fact that professional sports league are businesses that offer their wares to the public (and rely on the legal system for their organization, and so on), means that the personal liberty objection to a ban on steroid use by professional athletes is obviated.

Anyway, I haven't really thought this through, as I suppose is obvious. But I seem to be coming down on the side of (or merely rephrasing) Judge Posner's position on steroids.

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