Friday, September 14, 2007

Ignorance is bliss


“I know what you’re thinking. Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill?”

Sound familiar? It should. It’s from The Matrix. Cypher, played by Joe Pantoliano before his Ralph Cifaretto days, utters the line to Agent Smith.

Cypher has an epiphany. He realizes that some things are best kept in the dark – in this case, the fact that all humans were slaves, “grown” so robots can harvest their energy and imprisoned in the Matrix.

In theory, being taken over by robots sucks. No species wants to be captured and enslaved. But let’s stop for a second and cut the noble bullshit. Why was humankind better outside the Matrix? Why were a scorched Earth, no jobs, no TV, no video games, and no sports better than the Matrix, especially when we didn’t know the truth once wired in?

Now apply that theory to sports and the giant, black cloud that is steroid use. The media blitz has yanked us from the world of ignorance, exposed us to a harsh, cold real world of cheaters and become so relentless, so blown out of proportion, that it’s robbing our ability to enjoy sports.

See Rick Ankiel throw 839 wild pitches in one inning. See Rick Ankiel leave baseball in shambles. See Rick Ankiel make one of the most memorable comebacks in sports history, returning as a hitter and jacking bombs like he’s been doing nothing else his entire life. See sports media – guys like us – tear Rick Ankiel to pieces as fast as he built himself back up. Why? Because Rick Ankiel used a now-banned substance several years ago when it was completely legal.

For me, that was the last straw.

looks more like Entertainment Tonight or, worse, Dateline NBC, every day. Want highlights at the top of the hour? What are you smoking? The show starts with crime and scandal, from dog fighting, to gambling, to drunk driving, to performance-enhancing drugs.

Sports media are trapped. They can’t not tell us if Ron Mexico electrocutes a pooch or Chris Benoit offs himself. It’s become their journalistic obligation. But when we turn on guys like Ankiel, that obligation looks more like an unhealthy obsession. And it’s destroying pro sports as we know them.

Records become more meaningless every day. We can’t let anything be. It’s not just Barry Bonds and the home run record anymore; Gary Player had the nerve to hint at steroid use in golf. Golf? Are you kidding me? Go back to shooting 79s in honourary opening rounds at majors, Gary.

No one will deny that 2007 has been a nightmare for professional sports, with new bombshells dropping as often as Mike Holmgren says “Can you supersize that?” With performance-enhancing drugs, particularly in baseball, the biggest shocker this summer has been the sheer number of athletes busted or at least linked to use – from Gary Matthews Jr., to A-Rod, to Troy Glaus, to Jay Gibbons.

The huge number of potential users is troubling, particularly when bigwigs like J.P. Ricciardi suggest we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Bottom line: we’re inching closer each day to learning that every athlete uses. Don’t laugh. Look at the new baseball accusations in the last week alone.

If we’ve been played for fools all these years – if steroids are as common as water bottles for athletes – what does that mean? If an entire sport is polluted, it doesn’t make much sense to condemn and punish. Instead, we should use the evidence to learn more about the truth.

Firstly, if this many athletes are using, I wonder if there’s an alternate reality behind the use. Maybe more and more modern athletes use drugs because they feel they need to just to reach the highest level of competition; if everyone in a given pro sport uses, how can a non-user crack a roster? There could be a trickle-down effect, forcing entry-level athletes to use so they can keep up. Or maybe all athletes use because pro sports are that hard on the body and it’s the only way to avoid breaking down. Look at pitchers Mark Prior and Rich Harden. They were perpetually nicked up before the crack down but always bounced back quickly. In the new era, their bodies simply won’t let them play. They’re almost out of the game. So maybe drugs were the only way to keep their bodies fit for competition.

Secondly, why do we all assume steroid use is new in sports? If it’s this ubiquitous today, it just as easily could’ve existed in the past, albeit in less effective forms. Think about it. The development of anabolic steroids traces all the way back to pre-World War II Germany, when its athletes were rumoured to have experimented in the Olympics. Ben Johnson was booked 19 years ago. Do you really think he was the first? The Guinea pig? Hell no. He used a substance that was proven, that was tested on other human beings, most likely athletes. So if we lambaste modern athletes, we shouldn’t ignore previous generations. Assuming there’s a “Golden Age” is na├»ve. And as long as free agency has existed – as long as players could be financially rewarded for individually outperforming their peers – the motivation to cheat has existed.

It’s strange, however, that so much finger pointing happens when most of the accusations are simply accusations and nothing more. Yes, Jason Giambi wowed us with his Johnny Honesty campaign and a crappy minor leaguer gets busted once in a while, but most of the recent accusations bring with them no evidence of current use. Glaus allegedly used steroids in 2003 in 2004; still, they were banned back then, so it’s tough to shed a tear for him. A guy like Ankiel, however, received the Human Growth Hormone several years ago, when it wasn’t banned. Maybe he and other athletes are always a step ahead, finding new ways to mask drug use, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s no proof of him using today.

What will the future bring for, say, Red Bull? It increases energy and heart rate and it’s considered dangerous enough that bars aren’t supposed to mix it with booze. What if it’s outlawed in pro sports by 2012? Will we tear Sidney Crosby to shreds if we find out he slammed a Red Bull before every game from 2005-2010 and won the 2009 fastest skater contest after chugging two cans? The Red Bull example may sound ridiculous, but it shouldn’t. If it affects your energy levels, it can influence athletic performance.

Maybe it’s time we redefined what a performance enhancer is. Drugs have been stigmatized by the media, but with good reason; they have many visibly adverse affects on our bodies and minds. Heroin users ruin their lives and dozens of pro wrestlers who were linked with steroid use died young. But just because drugs are “evil” doesn’t mean we should ignore all other performance enhancers.

What about Synergy hockey sticks, which are designed to give extra flex and torque on players’ shots? Performance enhancers. Improvements to sneaker technology? Performance enhancers. Great Big Bertha Hawkeye drivers? Performance enhancers. Gatorade? Pure oxygen feeds? Even protein shakes? Performance enhancers. All are designed to improve an athlete’s ability to excel.

Why is using one performance enhancer – testosterone, for example – worse than using another – say, having Callaway analyze your golf swing and build a massive driver that will add 19 yards to your tee shots? Substances can destroy you, but athletes know those consequences and may face them (i.e. the Grim Reaper) should they choose to abuse drugs. I suppose the line is drawn when drug use affects others; the “roid rage” affect can make users hurt loved ones. Also, whether they want to be or not, athletes are role models. Youths will look up to them and imitate their behaviour no matter what. Still, regardless of how horrible drug use may be, we shouldn’t dismiss other performance enhancers.

Steroid crusaders, continue your assault if you must, but you’re hypocrites if you ignore all performance enhancers. Litter every record book with asterisks, Gretzky’s 92 goals? Fuck that. He did it with better skates and stick blades than Phil Esposito. Toss Peyton Manning’s 49 touchdowns out the window, too.

I’m not saying I want to take down every athlete and sport. But in theory, the principles of today’s steroid crusade can apply to all performance enhancers and destroy all pro sports.

Is the notion that we’ve been fooled, that we’ve watched a bunch of cheaters all these years, a sad one? Yes. But if you realize that sports may have always been this way, and that we were happy in the dark for decades, maybe we can wipe our brains clean and return to happiness. Some people may find that notion depressing, but I don’t. I’d love to watch A-Rod launch his 800th homer one day and enjoy it for what it is. Well, maybe not A-Rod, but you get the point.

There are much more serious things to worry about in the world than sports. Sports should be our escape. And in sports, ignorance is bliss, baby.

-- M. L.


malcolm said...

Your argument makes no sense, Larkin. PEDs are banned for health reasons -- they hurt the body with side effects. Synergy sticks don't hurt the body, and protein shakes make it healthier -- that's why they're not banned.

Performance-enhancing drugs aren't banned because they're performance-enhancing -- they're banned because they're DRUGS (or, in the case of non-drugs like HGH, because they have negative side effects, just like drugs do).

Anonymous said...

That's obviously true, but it's not my point.

You don't see the media harpooning Ankiel and Bonds because "they're doing such bad things to their bodies." They're harped upon because they've used drugs to enhance their performance and "cheat."

The discussion about drugs and what they do to your body -- which, aside from the role model problem, is mostly an athlete's decision, considering he or she is aware of the consequences -- is nowhere near the focus of what I'm saying.

Media obsess over cheaters, scandals, and anyone who finds a way to get a leg up on the competition and break records. Drugs and equipment both serve the purpose of improving performance.

Find me an article slamming Bonds for his "poor health choices" and I'll agree with you. Your argument works for wrestlers, but my argument mainly addresses major pro sports.

-- Larkin

malcolm said...

The thing you're forgetting is that the health problems are the reasons steroids are illegal.

People using steroids elevates the level of competition to the point where it's becoming necessary to use them, and thus necessary to take on harmful side effects, in order to compete. That's why PEDs are against the rules, and it negates the "it's their choice to harm their bodies" claim.

And that's why it's considered cheating to use steroids. The inference from health to cheating isn't a one-step argument, but it's the sole reason 'roids are considered cheating.

Anonymous said...

It's naive to think health risks are the sole reason why roids are considered cheating, even if that's the official terminology.

The steroid debate wouldn't mean nearly as much if it didn't jeopardize records and damage sports' credibility...that's why we and the media obsess over it...that's why the crusade happens...that's why I was inspired to write this column.

- Larkin

malcolm said...

Well, yeah, they jeopardize records because they're cheating.. but give one reason aside from health reasons that they're illegal?

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I have a reason...but why should I? My column wasn't about the legality of steroids...

-- Larkin

malcolm said...

Of course it was -- you argued that other performance-enhancing products, equipment, etc. could one day be illegal for the same reasons that steroids are.

szarka said...

Technology and steroids are COMPLETELY different. A border line college athlete, lets say a lineman, can't make the NFL because he has the newest Nike cleats, correct? He can make the NFL if he takes HGH to increase the amount of muscle he can pack on his body, followed by taking steroids which allow him to gain muscle without lifting a finger. Add some exercise to that and you have a machine that is NFL ready. Synergy sticks don't score 50 goals for you, and a new football doesn't throw 49 touchdowns for Peyton Manning. I agree that most athletes probably are juicing or taking HGH but that does not put it on par with technological advancements. Thats like arguing that evolution is a performance enhancers... "Well, everyone is bigger, faster, and stronger now then they were 50 years ago... thats cheating... that enhances performance..." The caffeine burst that Red Bull gives you won't even last past the warm-up and I'd argue that a caffeine boost like that is actually a detriment to performance, not an enhancer. Sure a Big Bertha driver will give you 19 extra yards but A) it won't make you hit it straight B) the courses are all so much longer than they were 50 years ago, whats 19 yards... Just living in the year 2007 probably adds more than 19 yards to a drive. Next thing you know you're going to start ranting about the fact that training at altitude is the same as blood doping (clearly it is not). New sneaker technology doesn't make you run a 4.1, but steroids could. You make some good points but steroid use and technological advancement being the same thing is not one of them. Oh and its tough to say that the athlete understand the cost of steroid when there haven't been any real longitudinal studies regarding the long term effects of steroid use. As such its fairly unethical to turn a blind eye to the potential harm they could be administering to themselves because they need it to sustain performance at a high level.

Hayesism said...

I liked the column, but I have to chip in: the argument that steroids prevent injury is ridiculous. To use a different example, steroids - although excellent at increasing strength - greatly increase your chance of injury in pro football. Because of the added muscle mass on your joints, any motion where you are putting great strain on your joints (ie. throwing from right-to-third base; getting tackled/sacked) increases the chance of damage on joints and tendons. So that argument is bunk at least.
I'm not saying that drug abuse/performance enhancing isn't rampant in football, they just wouldn't be using steroids and steroids do not decrease your chance of injury in sports.

szarka said...

Steroids do in fact prevent injury in certain cases. Take a pitcher for example. Injury to muscles in the shoulder (ie: rotator cuff) are the most common injuries to a pitcher. Rotator cuff injuries are tearing of the shoulder muscles. Steroids re-build muscle in the shoulder which helps to re-gain strength and functionality more rapidly. Pitchers can also take steroids to build more muscle in the shoulders to prevent injury in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying that steroids and equipment are on par as performance enhancers. I'm just saying that they're both performance enhancers. To reiterate, just because one performance enhancer is much more potent -- steroids -- doesn't mean other very minor performance enhancers aren't in fact performance enhancers. That's why I say the crusaders in principle shouldn't ignore everything.

Do you not think equipment should be taken into consideration when, say, looking at golf records?

Again, obviously steroids are much, much worse. I never said equipment was on par. I'm just saying steroids aren't the only things used to better an athlete's performance. Just because vandalism is much less serious than murder doesn't mean it ceases to be a crime. Just because the flu is much less serious than cancer doesn't mean it isn't an illness. Get me?

Hayes, you have nothing with the "steroids don't prevent injury" argument. It's widely known that preventing injury is a common reason behind use in pitchers. Even Canseco talks about it in his book. Don't laugh - yes, he's crazy, but yes, he used tonnes of steroids, so he probably knows a little about them.

-- Larkin

malcolm said...

Steroids prevent injury if used in the right amounts, by helping build weaker muscles which might be susceptible.

But when used heavily (i.e. for home run hitting or used by linebackers, etc.), the muscle grows at a greater rate than ligaments and tendons, which are unable to support the stress.