A Sports Fan's PED Dilemma: How Great Do We Want Athletes to Be?

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A Sports Fan's PED Dilemma:  How Great Do We Want Athletes to Be?

When I heard the news that Major League Baseball had finally suspended Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun for using performance-enhancing drugs, forcing him to sit for the remainder of the 2013 season, my first reaction was, "Huh, that really sucks for the Brewers, I guess."

While some may feel a sense of accomplishment or an overwhelming feeling of karma catching up to a guy who cheated and defiantly lied about it time and again, I felt, "Huh." Apathy. 

My tenor has changed on this over the years. I used to be one of the people who would pound on a table when player needed to be exposed for cheating. "The truth has to come out, dammit."

I've long since resigned myself to the belief that players are always going to look for an edge, and it may be better for everyone if we all just sit back and let them find it.

 

The Braun Suspension

In a way, suspending Braun isn't all that bad for the Brewers, as Milwaukee is way out of the hunt for the playoffs. It sucks for Braun, sure, as his reputation has been eternally sullied in the eyes of those who care about a clean game. If there is a winner in this whole mess, one might suppose it's MLB itself, whose crusade to clean up the sport has now accomplished a significant milestone, with its own DEA-style photo opportunity to frame in the office break room.

What's the baseball equivalent of a table full of drugs, guns and cash? Braun's urine in a cup next to an open FedEx box, Alex Rodriguez's bat and a notebook full of Tony Bosch's hand-written records?

The more I read into Braun's suspension and the comments from MLB and the MLB Players Association, the more I was convinced that this drug crusade is, in a very real way, doing more harm to the sport than good.

 

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Drugs are Bad

Before we delve too deep into the hypocrisy of performance-enhancing drug enforcement in major sports, it's important to note that these drugs can be bad for your health and are illegal. The average youth player or even high school star at home shouldn't read this and think, "Hey, I'm going to do drugs and make it to the majors."

You probably won't. (If my 10-year old nephew who is really good at baseball is reading this, I did not say you could do drugs.)

This is more about the tail-chasing nature of drugs in professional sports, and what it takes for a professional athlete to become the best. In order to be the best, you have to beat the best (as the old saying goes), and sometimes that means doing things to your body that could eventually kill you.

In a way, though, this is about everything. We are taught the mantra from a very young age that drugs are bad. "Say no to drugs"… unless the drugs are prescribed by a doctor, sanctioned by a national medical board and provided by a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical brand through an equally rich insurance company. Then, by all means, say "yes" to drugs.

Do you have problems focusing at work? Your doctor may prescribe Adderall. Major League Baseball players take Adderall with an MLB therapeutic-use exemption every day, while others have been suspended for taking the exact same pills, just without a prescription from a doctor.

Drugs are bad, unless you can find a doctor who says those same drugs are good.

Steroids are particularly bad, unless you have an injury that warrants a shot of cortisone to get back on the field. Cortisone, last I checked, is a steroid and yet doctors and scientists have classified cortisone differently from anabolic steroids, so in sports circles, the product is seen as a miracle drug. From the Mayo Clinic:

Cortisone shots usually include a corticosteroid medication and a local anesthetic. In many cases, cortisone shots can be administered in your doctor's office. However, the number of cortisone shots you can receive in one year may be limited because of potential side effects from the medication.

Nobody would ever call Derek Jeter a cheater, but he reportedly got shot up with cortisone during the playoffs before his ankle snapped last year. So did dozens of other players who are revered for trying to play hurt.

Steroids are bad, except the ones that are good.

Barry Bonds used to rub an ointment on his knees to help recover from the wear and tear of the long season as he got older. Bonds, who was a noted jerk, is viewed as the biggest cheater in the history of the game in some people's eyes.

Would people have made such an issue with Bonds' affiliation with BALCO if he was a nicer guy? Would reporters have been more willing to look the other way if it was Ken Griffey Jr.?

And do we, as a public, confuse anger over cheating with anger over lying? Dozens of players have cheated, but we always seem the most upset with those who lie to cover it up.

Which is more upsetting, the drugs or the lies?

 

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Cortisone and HGH

Andy Pettitte, who is still pitching at age 41, said this week he would still support Rodriguez if he gets suspended by MLB. Pettitte, you might recall, was connected to Roger Clemens in the 2007 PED scandal, and admittied to using HGH in 2002 when he was injured. Remember, HGH was not banned by baseball until 2005.

At the time of his admission, Pettitte delved into a deep sea of justifications and moralizations, via ESPN.com

"In 2002 I was injured. I had heard that human growth hormone could promote faster healing for my elbow," Pettitte said in the statement released to the Associated Press by agent Randy Hendricks.

"I felt an obligation to get back to my team as soon as possible. For this reason, and only this reason, for two days I tried human growth hormone…I wasn't looking for an edge. I was looking to heal."

So…wait…Pettitte wasn't trying to cheat, he was just trying to get back on the field, which is ostensibly no different than a cortisone shot. If some anabolic steroids and HGH help your body recover so you can get back on the field faster, and a cortisone shot is a steroid that masks pain so you can get back on the field faster, why are players lauded for taking one type of steroid but suspended for taking another?

Drugs are bad, unless MLB says they are good.

 

Bigger than Baseball

Drugs are bad, unless any governing body in sports say they are good.

While the performance-enhancing drug scandal has repeatedly rocked baseball, most other professional American sports remain unscathed. The NFL and NFLPA are working on a program to include HGH testing this season. Why? There has been no clamoring for a clean game in the NFL, to judge from daily reading of the media.

Perhaps football fans don't care if the players are on PEDs as long as whatever the players are taking helps their team win. (Note: Some baseball fans feel the same way, as any talk-show host could tell you, but it's still an enormous issue in that sport.)

The NFL is more popular than it has ever been in history, so why would the league want to mess with that popularity by instituting a drug policy that could lead to more and longer suspensions for key players? This is a noble idea in theory, but it won't be received with as much support when more Pro Bowl-caliber players start missing more time.

 

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The War on Drugs in Sports

Somewhere within the "drugs are bad, let's ban those who use them" world of sports (and media), there's a sense of celebration whenever new drug policies are implemented.

To some, having a clean game is more important than having a good game.

Judging by public sentiment, though, more people want a good game by any means necessary. Are there really that many people who care about a clean game?

Is cleaning up the game a media crusade—the investigative arm of sports media sees a "clean game" as its white whale—or is it a public relations spin by the leagues to reach out to parents and kids who will grow up to be the next generation of great players?

Is that really what it is? Are we concerned about the message we're sending to the kids?

Hey, little Billy, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs one year and IT WAS AWESOME and none of us will ever forget it, but it turns out that a few years later people who didn't like him because he was a jerk went to great lengths to out him as a cheater even though dozens and maybe hundreds of other players in his game were also cheating and the cheating he did wasn't even a suspendable offense at the time, so now a group of self-righteous fans and media want to ignore those 73 home runs which, at the time, WERE AWESOME, to go back to an era when 61 home runs was the record. Why? Because it makes them feel better about themselves. 

Whitewashing the history books is a slippery slope. It is incredibly precarious to pretend like an event didn't take place because admitting it happened makes us feel bad. Punishing the cheaters is one thing. Revising history is entirely another.

Why do we allow the hand-wringing to attempt to force sports to "clean up their act" when the game is more exciting when the players are enhancing their performance by artificial means?

 

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Historical Perspective

This never-ending crusade to level the playing field in baseball is laughable. The game has never, in its history, been level.

Many of the game's greats played in an era where black players were not allowed in the major leagues or Latin American players had yet to come to the U.S. to play the game professionally. Some played in an era where amphetamines and uppers—call them "greenies" if you like—were snacked on like Skittles in the clubhouse. 

Hank Aaron said in 2009 that he thinks anyone who was suspected of taking PEDs should have an asterisk on their plaques if inducted into the Hall of Fame, and those proven to have taken drugs should be banned. Yet Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle have said they took amphetamines, according to T.J. Quinn of ESPN. Players like Mike Schmidt have also been open about how prevalent amphetamines were in previous decades of the game.

Should we go back and ban these all-time greats? Should they be kicked out of the Hall of Fame because the drug they took is illegal now?

No?...What does that say about a level playing field, then? 

Amphetamines were banned from MLB in 2006, which led players to find other ways to "up" their performance, increasing the use of drugs like Adderall. Should the statistics of players who used to pop "greenies" be taken out of the record books because it's a banned substance now? 

If players in the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s were allowed to take drugs—or at least not tested and punished for them—that players today can't, how are we in any way able to judge history fairly?

Baseball has gone through a dead-ball era and a juiced-ball era and neither were, contextually, fair to the hitters or pitchers of each respective time period.

In this current and ongoing era of steroids, people have made the case that performance enhancers have given the hitters a clear advantage over the pitchers—look at all the home runs by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Bonds, for example—and yet, Roger Clemens is still the most prominent name other than Bonds to be associated with PEDs

(It's worth noting that since 2005, there have been 32 different major league players suspended for PEDs—36 suspensions with four players dinged twice—and 15 of them have been pitchers.)

 

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Rationalizing, Moralizing & Sanitizing

The latest moral argument you hear from reporters is that most of the players want the game clean, and that is why it's so important to eradicate the game of performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, that line of thinking takes the leap some of us are unwilling to make—trusting the players who haven't yet been caught.

Ryan Braun was adamant about his innocence for years, until he wasn't. Mark McGwire fought for his good name for nearly a decade, until he sat down and admitted everything to Bob Costas in 2010.

We talked about BALCO briefly, but the ringleader behind that PED-pushing outfit, Victor Conte, said in 2011 the number of players still cheating is incredibly high, via the Herald Sun:

Seven years after BALCO's demise, Conte believes that over half of top athletes are still doping.

"I believe that before the BALCO affair, 80 per cent of athletes were using steroids, today that figure stands at about 65 per cent," Conte said in the hard-hitting interview.

It may be hard to believe someone like Conte, but he would probably be more reliable at this point than an athlete with everything to lose. With that, it's certainly fair to ask if most of the players really do want the game clean or are just saying that to avoid suspicion.

 

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Hell on Wheels

Lance Armstrong is the biggest villain in all of sports because he systematically lied and cheated and destroyed people's lives in an effort to avoid being caught. Armstrong is a monster, not for the cheating as much as for the lying.

Look at the rest of his sport. Armstrong was only taken down because nearly every successful rider of his generation got caught first and rolled over on him.

Is cycling better now than it was then? Fans of the sport seem happy that it's "finally" clean and speak to the ratings being up this season over previous years. When you look at the numbers, however, it's fuzzy math to make a failing point. The ratings for the 100th running of the Tour de France were up this year in America, thanks in part to NBC putting several legs of the race on its main network, as opposed to the ratings-poor NBC Sports Network on which the race has traditionally aired.

If you look at the Tour from a general interest perspective in America, it's non-existent. The only time anyone might talk about cycling in a non-niche setting is if Armstrong says something obnoxious or another rider gets caught cheating.

 

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The Race to the Top

This fight to clean up sports goes back an entire generation, mind you. Ben Johnson was stripped of the gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, which, at the time, was the biggest scandal in the sport's history. It didn't hurt that Johnson's disqualification meant Carl Lewis, an American, won the gold.

Ben Johnson's time in 1988 was 9.79, shattering the world record of 9.83. In history, only seven men have run faster than 9.8 seconds, eight if you include Johnson. Of those other seven men, five have been linked to some form of doping, with two—American Tyson Gay and Jamaican Asafa Powell—testing positive just last week

Justin Gatlin, who has run two of the fastest times this season, including a victory over world-record holder Usain Bolt in June, was out of racing for four years after failing a test in 2006. Now, we celebrate him again, just like Gay and Powell and Jamaica's Yohan Blake and many other runners who wow us with their blazing speed.

And yet, with all the scandal surrounding the world's top sprinters, the 100-meter dash is still the marquee event of the World Championships and the Olympics. Why? Because people want to see records being broken by the best sprinters of all time and all the top runners were (conveniently) clean at the time of the last Olympics. 

People want to marvel at a man running 100 meters down a track in 9.58 seconds. People don't care how it's done, it's just amazing that it was done. If it turns out that Bolt was cheating, it shouldn't lessen the amazing feat. Hell, if it turns out he's an alien, it shouldn't matter. Speed is what matters.

Johnson is still remembered as a pariah in Olympic sports—a cautionary tale of sorts. Today, he would likely be Bolt's biggest rival.

 

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Drugs Are Bad (Unless...)

Racing to become the world's fastest man. Mashing 73 home runs. It can seem that drugs are bad, unless they make things more awesome. Then, drugs make sports a whole lot more fun to watch.

The issue, moving forward, becomes how to level the playing field for all athletes. Wouldn't making all performance-enhancing drugs legal level that field? If there were no punishments for any performance enhancer, the playing field would essentially be even for everyone. 

From The Guardian:

Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist, has even called for stimulants to be legalised – with steroids, human growth hormone and blood doping remaining banned – warning that athletics "was not even bleeding any more. We have to get out the paddles because we have to be resuscitated now."

Why stop at stimulants, honestly? If HGH can help players recover faster, which gets the best players back on the field faster, doesn't that help everyone in the game?

While catching the cheaters is indeed a noble effort, doing so still sullies the game and poisons fans against the product.

Even Jeter, who has been widely regarded as Mr. Clean in his long MLB career, realizes what these PED scandals have done to his sport, via Newsday:

"Watching the game, that's all they're talking about," he said of the TV commentators. "I get it, I understand it, but it's not good for the game."

 

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Plausible Deniability

People don't really care how the sausage is made, just that it tastes delicious on (or in baseball terms, at) the plate.

Owners would be happy if their best—read: highest paid—players are on the field more. Fans would be happy to see the best possible lineup each and every night in an effort to win championships. The players, themselves, would be happy because their playing field would actually be level.

There are just two factors stopping this from happening.

First, some think—scientists and doctors, not crazy fans—that steroids and PEDs are bad for people, creating a short-term benefit with long-lasting physical ramifications.

Is that different than any other facet of sports?

Thousands of people around this country strap on a football helmet knowing the technology is not advanced enough to properly protect their brain and neck—knowing they could be paralyzed or killed at any moment—and most of the people playing and watching are fine with that.

Race car drivers strap themselves into rockets on wheels week after week, defying death while rubbing bumpers with cars going 200 miles per hour around a bend. We are fine with that too.

We could sit here and think up any number of asinine things in sports that could impact an athlete's physical well-being that fans are totally fine with witnessing. Why, then, do some people care about the effects drugs might have on our athletes later in life?

 

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Bigger, Stronger, Faster

Second, our comical allegiance to history has created this system where major athletics are swimming upstream in an effort to keep the game clean.

We want 62 home runs or a 10-second 100-meter dash to matter because those records allow us to compare generations through numbers in a wildly arbitrary manner.

Players are already bigger and stronger and faster today even without PEDs. Jesse Owens may be the greatest Olympian of all time, but he wouldn't even qualify for today's Olympic Games, clean or not.

Owens ran a (hand-timed) world record of 10.2 in 1936. In 2012, Japanese sprinter Yoshihide Kiryu ran the fastest youth time in history at 10.19, when he was 16 years old. Times have changed.

In sports like baseball, golf and even basketball, the technology behind the equipment used is so far beyond what players a generation ago were using that it's ridiculous to suggest the playing field is in any way historically level.

If baseball wants the home run record to have sanctity, it should do what golf has done and make the course longer. Move back the fences to 450 or 500 feet. That will protect the old home run record far more than dinging a few players for PEDs ever could.

Sure, making the outfield bigger could lead to more base hits which would lead to more runs but…wait a minute…more runs means more excitement and that might lead to (gasp) more interest in the sport.

 

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Marketing the Product of Excellence

Baseball's ratings are dwindling. The World Series gets nearly half the ratings it used to—in 1995, the year after a strike, baseball averaged 29 million viewers for the World Series, while over the last three seasons, MLB is averaging just over 14 million viewers—and even marquee events like the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby are down in viewers.

Baseball won't stop trying to clean up its game, and in the process, it may actually be turning people off to the product.

Some have rejected the game because of the cheaters, angry at the sport's best players for taking advantage of the fans' trust. Others have rejected the game because, simply, it's not as exciting anymore.

Blame drugs one way or the other, but the numbers are what they are.

All the while, the NFL becomes more and more popular. That is, until it screws things up by starting to suspend the game's best players too.

 

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The Never-Ending Fight

The war on drugs in this country has created a culture in sports that trumpets cleanliness over competitiveness. It doesn't have to be that way anymore.

There are, admittedly, athletes who stay away from PEDs not because using them will lead to getting caught, but because morally, ethically or scientifically they feel that filling their bodies with production-boosting chemicals is wrong. That is immensely commendable, truly.

Not all players have to use drugs. Even though some performance enhancers are legal, it doesn't mean everyone has to do them. Some athletes might prefer water to Gatorade, too. There's a sliding scale of what people put in their bodies to make them run at maximum efficiency.

Imagine how amazing sports would be if everyone was able to maximize the most from their bodies without having to hide in the shadows, look over their shoulders and lie.

The cheating will never stop, unless it isn't cheating anymore.

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