Basketball street player making a rear slam dunk.

Another Kind of Performance-Enhancing Drug in Sports: Substances That Improve Creativity

By Jack Becker

Discussions about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are normally all about physical abilities. They revolve around PEDs that can alter strength, speed, stamina, recovery, and even stability. But if every sport were just a competition of physical traits, they’d be pretty boring.

Sports combine physical competition with competition of strategy, technique, and other non-physical components (to varying degrees). While players develop some of these individually, sports also involve coaches and trainers that develop new strategies and techniques without stepping onto the field. Innovations in these non-physical components can certainly enhance a player or team’s performance. So how do they fit into the PED discussion?

Innovation in Sports

Innovation is omnipresent in many sports. (To avoid the cardinal sin of those talking about enhancement in sports, this is a disclaimer that the discussion is different in every sport.) It’s already associated with sports like skateboarding, where skaters like Jay Adams and Rodney Mullen are legends for their innovative contributions. But it’s just as present in other sports. Some innovations fundamentally change how a sport is played (like the curveball in baseball, the Fosbury Flop in high jump, and the dunk in basketball), while others are rare and extraordinary (like the fumblerooski in football, the Air Gait in lacrosse, and The Michigan in hockey). They can be as macro-level as a team’s strategy (like the Golden State Warriors’ small-ball lineup) or as seemingly minor as a technical development (like variations in football blocking techniques).

The value of innovation and creativity in sports is illustrated especially well (though exaggeratedly) in movies. Gordon Bombay is certainly innovative in disguising Russ Tyler as Team USA’s goalie to unleash his equally creative knucklepuck in D2: The Mighty Ducks. In Kicking and Screaming, Phil Weston leads the Tigers to victory through flashes of genius like encouraging his smallest player and biggest player to team up to become a “mega person.” And Jackie Moon introduces the revolutionary alley-oop in Semi-Pro following a vision featuring his mother. Sports movies are filled with underdogs using innovation and creativity to beat an athletically better opponent.

Yet what if Jackie Moon’s alley-oop revelation didn’t come from his “natural” creativity, but instead from a drug enhancing his creativity? Or what if Phil Weston’s flashes of genius were fueled by microdoses of LSD instead of coffee? Though the examples are slightly ridiculous, the idea is not outside the realm of possibility. Another Phil with iconic coaching success and creativity, Phil Jackson, suggested that experiences with marijuana heightened his intuition, and LSD changed the way he viewed the sport of basketball.

Ultimately, we’re left with two questions: (1) Should PEDs that improve innovation and creativity be treated like those that enhance athleticism? (2) If so, should coaches, trainers, and other contributors be tested for these innovation-fueling PEDs, in addition to players?

WADA and the “Spirit of Sport”

According to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Code, substances or methods may be added to the Prohibited List if two of the following three conditions are met: It (1) “has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance”; (2) “represents an actual or potential health risk to the Athlete“; (3) “violates the spirit of sport.” Naturally, these criteria raise an abundance of unanswered questions.

To start, what is “sport performance”? Does it refer to all aspects of the “sport performance,” including strategies and techniques, or just physical abilities?

Additionally, how does innovation and creativity fit into “the spirit of sport”? Underdog stories seem to be the epitome of “the spirit of sport.” Yet, innovation is not always welcome. The curveball was originally considered “deceptive and dishonest” before becoming a standard part of baseball. The backflip in figure skating, which is quite an extraordinary feat, is outright banned. And trick plays in general can be contentious. In the words of former University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger, “We had to come up with some good plays at the end there to win it, but we did force them to resort to the [expletive] fumblerooski. I told them before the game if those [expletive] have to run the fumblerooski, come to the sidelines and party because they have given up their right of manhood.”

The WADA Code’s definition of “the spirit of sport” is not particularly helpful with this. For example, “dedication and commitment,” one of the defining values in “the spirit of sport,” could support the dedication that goes into innovating within a sport, or it could fight against creative shortcuts that cut against hard work (just like debates around the invasion of data analytics in sports).

As tends to happen in discussions of performance enhancement in sports, we’re left with more questions than answers.

The Future of Innovation in Sports

With all of the unanswered questions, the logical strategy seems to be to ask another question with even less of a clear answer. In a science fiction future with complete genetic engineering, would innovative techniques and strategies be more or less important? For basketball games with ten 7’6″ players, innovative techniques could be the only way to differentiate yourself. And if every baseball player can pitch 130 mph, maybe effective knuckleball and submarine pitchers could be the game changers; they could represent adaptive forms of functioning in sports for those who aren’t genetically engineered. If this is the case, then considerations around innovation and creativity would be vital.

Alternatively, adaptive forms of functioning in sports could be insufficient to make up for athleticism gaps. The Little Giants’ antacid intimidation tactics and the Annexation of Puerto Rico (their version of the fumblerooski) worked against their rival Cowboys, despite the Giants being outmatched athletically. But what if the youth Cowboys were the actual Dallas Cowboys? No amount of creativity could lead them to victory, not even “one time.” In a world where some people are supremely athletically enhanced and others are not, even enhanced innovation may not be enough to save the underdogs.

While issues around the future of PEDs may not be society’s most pressing concerns, they provide an opportunity for fun discussions and for society to reflect on what it values and why. After all, in the words of Thomas H. Murray, “My admittedly unscientific impression is that the items in the daily newspaper most likely to be devoted to philosophy are the columns in the sports section. There, grand debates unfold over matters of justice and over the meaning of sport… Let the dialogue flourish, and let the games begin.”

Jack Becker

Jack is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former student fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center. He thanks you for reading this and hopes you have a great day!

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