How Trump’s FDA Deregulation Could Change Sports Doping

Chess players can't wait to find out!

Getty Images
Mar 21, 2017 at 3:16 PM ET

Donald Trump’s appointment of Dr. Scott Gottlieb to lead the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) promises a steady increase in pharmaceutical deregulation. Should Gottlieb be confirmed as FDA commissioner—no guarantee considering his compromised financial relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, although conflicts haven’t stopped this administration from getting what it wants—his designs on deregulation could have a significant impact on how drugs are used to skirt anti-doping measures.

Gottlieb is a strong proponent of “off-label” prescription drug usage. Using a medicine “off-label” means administering the drug in manners unspecified by the FDA’s approved packaging label. It’s not entirely uncommon for drugs to have medicinal and therapeutic purposes beyond its initial intent or current, FDA-defined purpose. However, the Obama administration tightened up off-label regulation so that people don’t abuse the inherent vagaries of off-label prescriptions to, perhaps, cheat at chess? The Atlantic’s James Hambelin envisions a brave new world of doping chess-fiends (chess-ing dope-fiends?):

Have you ever wanted to play better chess? To think and work more effectively, seeing moves 10 steps ahead? Vanquishing opponents with mental energy to spare? Well now you can, with cognitive-enhancement drugs.

That’s how the first half of the pharmaceutical commercial might go. The small-print, fast-talking second half would say that limitations apply. Some of the drugs are addictive and likely to alter one’s sleep habits and heart rate and general sense of self. The drugs don’t work if you don’t know how to play chess.

For professional chess players, though, medicinal “neuro-enhancement” (as it’s sometimes dubiously known) could bring in somewhere between 6 and 15 percent more wins. That’s according to the first large study of “highly skilled tournament chess players” comparing their performance in states of medication and sobriety—a study that the World Chess Championship’s publication World Chess has called “landmark” and “groundbreaking.”

Though using Ritalin and other ADHD meds to gain a performance edge is currently illegal, a Trump/Gottlieb deregulated industry could empower drug marketers to sell dreams of Bradley Cooper-style limitlessness. If they got you to buy Cymbalta, why not try and make you believe that a small dose of ADHD pills will unlock your inner genius.

Some American sports already have suspiciously high ADHD drug use. While the ADAA estimates that four percent of the adult population has ADHD, roughly 11 percent of Major League Baseball players were diagnosed with the condition in 2015. We’ve yet to see what the Trump doctrine will specifically mean for the future of doping, but it’s not hard to trace a path from legalizing and popularizing vague and improper ADHD medicine usage to an impending battle between sports organizations trying to maintain a level playing field and, more importantly, keeping their athletes safe.