September 27, 2013

Constructing Deviance: A-Rod, Drugs, and Cheating

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

“Is Calling Cheating Cheating, Cheating?” This was the title of a paper I wrote back in graduate school for a class on the sociology of deviance. This playful (or confusing) use of words was my attempt at getting at the uncertainty that sometimes surrounds actions that we deem improper. The point I was trying to make with this title is that it seems wrong to call some acts of inappropriate behavior inappropriate. A particular act might be referred to as cheating but upon closer inspection we may realize that it’s not entirely accurate to label this act as wrong.

In that paper I was concerned primarily with academic dishonesty and I was looking at behaviors that are not easily categorized, such as studying together and working cooperatively on assignments. In certain academic contexts these actions may be considered cheating, but in other academic settings, and in most professional situations, this sort of group work is encouraged and expected (for more on this topic see Karen Sternheimer’s post).

I’ve been thinking about these ideas again while following the case of Alex Rodriquez. For those who don’t know, A-Rod is the polarizing, star baseball player for the New York Yankees. While some consider him to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time, others consider him a liar and cheat because of his persistent connection to performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). In the latest chapter of this on-going saga, A-Rod was suspended by Major League Baseball for 211 games because of evidence connecting him to PEDs. A-Rod’s legal team appealed this sentence and for now he is still playing for the Yankees. 

626px-Alex_Rodriguez
credit: Keith Allison/Wikimedia
A-Rod’s situation raises a number of interesting questions relating to the sociology of deviance: How is deviance socially constructed? Why do we deem some actions deviant (or cheating) and other similar actions acceptable and allowable? What societal values are being upheld by calling certain actions deviant?

Some of these sociological points were raised succinctly by Bryant Gumbel in his commentary on A-Rod and America’s drug problem:

As Gumbel suggests, there seems to be a contradiction between what we define as inappropriate behavior in sports versus what we condone and promote in other arenas of social life. In sociological terms, Gumbel is referring to the moral panic that has swept our country over PEDs in sports. Moral panics arise when people feel threatened by something that is disrupting societal norms and values. The use of drugs in sports—particularly in baseball, our nation’s pastime—qualifies as a moral panic to the extent that PEDs threaten our (largely mythological) notion of sports as embodying fair play, hard work, sportsmanship, and honesty.

Bryant Gumbel points out that our moral panic might really be better understood as a moral paradox because it seems somewhat contradictory that we condemn A-Rod for his actions while we simultaneously engage in similar sorts of behaviors. Such contradictions are one of the reasons why studying deviance can be so fascinating. Behaviors that are deemed inappropriate are not always inappropriate. In other words, we are not talking about a clear-cut moral case of right and wrong.

To understand deviance sociologically requires that we be cognizant of at least three important dimensions: First, we need to consider the context in which the behavior occurs. The location of our actions—both in terms of time and place—has a significant impact on how our behaviors are perceived. Second, we must be tuned into the reaction of the audience. If someone does something inappropriate but no one really cares is it really inappropriate? Third, we should be aware of the status of those who are engaging in the behaviors under question. Police officers can do things like roll through stop signs and even go through red lights,  but if we engage in those behaviors we would be given tickets.

The paradoxical nature of labeling A-Rod a deviant was further articulated by Malcolm Gladwell in an article in The New Yorker. The backlash against athletes who use PEDs revolves around them getting an unfair advantage over their competition. But as Gladwell points out, there is considerable ambiguity in determining who has an unfair advantage in sports. Some athletes have naturally elevated levels of red blood cells making it easier for them to deliver oxygen to their muscles (an essential component of athletic excellence). Other athletes have extraordinary vision giving them a decided advantage in sports like baseball where hand-eye coordination is key.

Beyond these athletes who have what we might call PEGs (performance enhancing genetics), are those that have surgically enhanced bodies that similarly aid their performance. Gladwell discusses laser surgery for the eyes and tendon-replacement surgery for the shoulder. Both procedures are allowed by Major League Baseball even though they both “turn the athlete into an improved version of his natural self.” Why isn’t this form of performance enhancing—much less the natural kind with PEGs—considered cheating?

The question of what is considered cheating extends well beyond the world of sports—especially when we are talking about performance enhancing drugs. For example, should we allow students to take drugs such as Adderall so that they can perform on the SATS and other standardized test? Should we drug test musicians to see if they are taking beta blockers for anxiety before auditions or performances? Why condemn athletes like A-Rod for using performance enhancing drugs when we condone students and musicians, among others, for also using performance enhancing drugs?

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Comments

Drug use rise in the world Our children, in particular, have this problem. Every institute should take some good steps to control it.

Addiction is often a value judgment against someone else’s lifestyle. At the same time, I’ve seen many people very grateful for being encouraged into treatment, however strongly. Treatment for addiction can save lives.

This article is very informative and helpful to me. Hopefully it helps me to work towards my goal in a more targeted way. Also, generally I think getting healthy should be a priority for everyone.

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