Q. Is it ethical for pro athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs and treatments?
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, The Jewish Ethicist responds.
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
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.
About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Dr. Meir received his PhD in Economics from MIT, and previously
studied at Harvard. Rabbi Dr. Meir is also a Senior
Lecturer in Economics at the Jerusalem College of Technology and has
published several articles on the subjects of modern business and
economics and Jewish law. He writes a weekly column, The Jewish Ethicist, which provides advice on everyday business and work dilemmas.