Doping in Hollywood
For his role in the new movie Southpaw, Jake Gyllenhaal gained 45 lbs (20 kgs) of muscle in six months. Many praised Gyllenhall for his dedication in undergoing this remarkable physical transformation. Few have questioned whether this achievement was aided by the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Some in the bodybuilding community claim that such massive weight gain would be nearly impossible without the use of steroids. For experienced bodybuilders, it is considered an accomplishment to gain 7-10 pounds of muscle in a year “naturally”. Training in combination with taking human growth hormone (HGH) can add 4.6 pounds of lean muscle mass, in three weeks.
Hollywood provides the perfect catalyst for PEDs. Actors sometimes have to gain huge amounts of muscle in short periods of time. Many male leads have abnormally large muscles, giving increased opportunities for actors with such physiques. Although many PEDs are illegal, there is no drug testing for actors. With large financial resources, many actors are able to acquire a broad range of drugs to help them bulk up. According to one estimate, up to 20% of elite male actors use PEDs, such as growth hormone and testosterone. In 2007 Sylvester Stallone was caught entering Australia with vials of HGH and testosterone.
Yet – the use of PEDs by actors is largely ignored. This is in stark contrast to their use by athletes, which has become a public fascination. Millions are spent each year trying to catch athletes who use PEDs. Chris Froome’s recent win at the Tour de France was plagued by doping allegations, despite Froome continually passing tests for banned PEDs.
Why this difference in attitude? Is it that we think the use of PEDs by athletes is a greater moral transgression than their use by actors?
There are at least three reasons for holding that the use of PEDs by athletes is unethical; 1) it is unfair; 2) it is unsafe; and 3) it is against the spirit of sport.
The most straightforward reason why the use of PEDs by athletes is wrong is that it is a form of cheating. In addition to being illegal, many PEDs are banned by various athletic codes of conduct. Taking prohibited PEDs gives those willing to break the rules an unfair advantage over those that conform to the rules. This is clearly unethical.
However the use of PEDs by actors is unethical for similar reasons. The non-medical use of HGH and testosterone are illegal. Because some actors gain an advantage from physiques made possible through these drugs, actors willing to break the law have an advantage over law-abiding actors.
Another reason why many find the use of PEDs unethical in sport is because it is unsafe. Some PEDs increase risk of heart attack and other serious health problems. If we value public health, we should aim to reduce harmful uses of PEDs as much as possible. Banning PEDs in sports reduces the incentive for their use, and can therefore be justified by its safety benefits.
But drug safety issues apply regardless of the intended purpose of a drug’s use. The safety risks of PEDs are just as much a reason to be concerned about their use in actors as in athletes. Actors have just as much incentive to push the limits as athletes, given the extraordinary money on offer for gaining particular roles.
The third reason that athletes taking PEDs is often claimed to be unethical is because it is not in the spirit of sport. I believe this is the main reason why many find PED use by actors intuitively different from their use by athletes. Sport is meant to be a test of our intrinsic character. PEDs corrupt this test. Acting is not a test of our own character, but a test of how well we can adopt someone else’s.
For reasons I don’t have space to outline and defend in this blog post, I find this third reason unconvincing. I believe it is difficult to develop a substantive account that explains why taking PEDs is against “the spirit of sport”. Rather I agree with Savulescu and Foddy (2007), that the primary ethical concern with athletes taking PEDs is safety.
While using PEDs that are banned or illegal is unethical because it is a form of cheating, there is often no good reason to ban perfectly safe enhancing drugs.
If the only reason we should be concerned about PED use in sport is because of their negative health consequences, then there is little moral difference between their use by actors and athletes. We should look more closely at the asymmetry in our attitudes toward PED use by these groups.