No Second Chances?

Gavia's Gossip notes a story making the rounds that the Italian riders' union is recommending lifetime bans for anyone caught doping, with exceptions for riders who cooperate with authorities. This is a pretty dramatic step, so let's break it down.

The Pros:

  • It's a fairly strong statement. If you believe penalties have a deterrent effect, and that deterrence is in direct proportion with the severity of the penalty, then a lifetime ban should be more effective than 2-4 year exclusions at driving PEDs out of cycling.
  • Not all "mistakes" are alike. I'm not a huge believer in labeling every transgression a "mistake" and offering forgiveness. Obviously opinions will vary, but society at large is capable of differentiating between say, eminently forgiveable childhood misbehavior at one end of the spectrum, and premeditated murder at the other end, which is considered unforgiveable even in Massachusetts. That's a HUGE spectrum and cyclo-cheating doesn't slot in anywhere near either pole... but the death penalty/life in prison rationale is essentially, you knew exactly what you were doing, you were aware of the harm, and you did it anyway. So why should we let you off the hook just because you got caught and suddenly you're sorry? You could apply the same logic to Bernhard Kohl's career.
  • Optics. Which has nothing to do with actual solutions, but it would be nice for cyclists to look their fans in the eye and say, we're committed to stopping this.

And now, the Cons:

  • The deterrence argument doesn't ring especially true to me. Admittedly, black and white evidence is hard to come by. I found one study that shows how the death penalty isn't a deterrence to violent crime... but violent crime involves acts of passion, mental illness, and other factors that ruin the comparison. A better analogy involves penalties for drunken driving. There is some correlation between increased penalties and better behavior. But a) there are other reasons like education that have helped, and b) if anyone thinks we've solved drunk driving... Personally, my hunch is that the single greatest deterrence is increasing the chance of guys getting caught. Up to a point, retroactive testing rocks.
  • The forgiveness argument... I mostly like that one, with one caveat: the sport as a whole created the perverse doping culture, including a history of things like team managers and nutritionists telling young riders to start doping or quit the sport. It's possible we're past the tipping point, where doping is enough of an exception that the pressure to dope is no longer universal or even external. And the further in time we travel, the further from the openly-doped era of the 1990s we get. But... I'm not ready to completely forget the complicity of teams, race organizers, etc., and a little disgusted with how easily people shift 100% of the blame to the riders. 
  • The problem with capital punishment is, what if you're wrong? It would be bad enough to lop 2-4 years off a guy's career in case of a mistake. I accept that in many cases certainty isn't an issue, but there are enough cases where it is to argue against a blanket policy of lifetime bans.

I guess where I'm landing is, give prosecutors the option to go for lifetime bans, but don't make them the norm. If the issue is deterrence, the possibility of a lifetime ban should be just about as effective as the certainty of a lifetime ban, if caught. [Particularly where the original idea is to lessen the penalty for guys who cooperate, meaning it wasn't really a blanket policy to begin with.] So, it's not a terrible idea... but proceed with great caution.

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