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Sports referees should take performance-enhancing drugs

It’s obvious: better referee performance is better for players and better for spectators. Right? AAP Image/Joe Castro

Late last week football (soccer) website reported that FIFA, the international governing body for the world game, is considering forcing referees to pass fitness tests prior to games.

This quite sensible, if innocuous, suggestion was accompanied by the far more provocative idea that officials should also be tested to make sure they are not taking performance-enhancing substances.

We disagree wholeheartedly with this suggestion, for reasons we’ll explain shortly.

Speaking about the proposed fitness and drug testing at a conference in Budapest, FIFA’s chief medical officer, Jiri Dvorak said: “[we] have to consider referees as part of the game”. Michel D'Hooghe, chairman of FIFA’s medical committee, agreed with Dr Dvorak, noting that “the referee is an athlete on the field, so I think he should be subjected to the same rules”.

These comments are instructive in a number of ways:

  • they acknowledge that some substances can actually improve athletic performance, meaning anyone involved a vigorous physical activity, including referees, can get a similar boost in performance

  • they suggest that some referees might actually be using banned substances to improve their adjudication capability already

  • they suggest that, given referees are required to focus completely on the job at hand, and not let fatigue blur their judgements, they may want to use substances to not only deliver an improvement in bodily or athletic performance, but to also deliver an improvement in mental or cognitive performance.

We have known for some time that many groups of people have used substances, especially prescription pharmaceutical products, to enhance their mental and cognitive capacities.

Ritalin and Adderall are used by doctors to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But such substances have also been used by so-called “normal” people to improve memory and ability to focus more diligently on particular tasks, such as preparing a long report, sitting a stressful exam, or writing advertising copy.

Modafinal, a drug used to treat sleep disorders, especially those involving the inability to stay awake during daytime, has also become a popular cognitive performance substance. It is supposed to make normal people more alert, target their energies, strengthen their powers of concentration and enable them to meet deadlines with a minimum of fuss.

The interest in substances that might increase one’s cognitive power increased exponentially with the release of Limitless (see trailer below), a movie in which Eddie Mora, played by Bradley Cooper, found his creative nirvana after having been introduced to NZT, the ultimate cognitive enhancer.

Eddie’s writer’s block disappeared with the first tablet, his manuscript was completed within days and took on best-seller status. He subsequently went on to get all the girls, win all the fights, and secure all the prizes.

But his successes were conditional on using NZT. Fantasy and reality were soon blurred as NZT took on a life of its own outside the cinema.

But there is no doubting the reality of people’s desire to build their mental and cognitive capacities, and nor should there be any doubt about the widespread use of mental and cognitive enhancers:

  • long-distance truck-drivers have been taking stimulants of various sorts for more than 60 years to keep themselves and alert and focused

  • it is an open secret that most military operations around the world involve the dispensing of pep-pills to keep soldiers awake

  • theatre actors take beta-blockers – used to treat heart arrhythmias – as a matter of course to calm the nerves before a performance

  • students take caffeine and the occasional pharmacy-stimulant to give themselves an energy boost when putting together assignments

  • white-knuckle air travellers take anti-anxiety pills to get themselves on to the plane, and to think more coherently while on it.

But we need to remember that benefits from the use of cognition-enhancing substances are spread very unevenly through the population.

Studies have shown that the people who want them most – that is, the highly paid high-achievers – are precisely the people who derive the least benefit. The people who have most to gain from their use – the low-paid, the less-ambitious, and the disadvantaged – are the ones less likely to score, so to speak.

So, where does all this leave football referees?

It is in our interests, as sports fans, to encourage referees to do whatever it takes to improve their level of performance, especially where their cognitive limitations are frequently there for everyone to see.

With the disciplined use of appropriate drugs approved by reputable physicians, the referees can concentrate for longer, make the clearest of judgements, and communicate their decisions more coherently.

As a result the players will gain confidence in the referees, and play with less uncertainty and more creativity. At the same time the fans will get to watch a game that flows with less disruption and fewer disputes.

There is a massive social benefit here.

To call for drug testing for referees – be it for physical/athletic enhancement, or mental/ cognitive enhancement – is therefore totally nonsensical. It goes against the common-sense view that if the quality of a public performance is enhanced by clearer thinking, sharper focus, less anxiety, and decisive action, then the greater the benefit to everyone.

There is no cheating to speak of, no-one gets harmed, and the game’s reputation remains intact.

What’s not to love?

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