SPORTS MEDIA HAVE BLOWN PERFORMANCE-ENHANCING DRUG SCANDALS OUT OF PROPORTION. EITHER WE TURN A BLIND EYE TO SAVE OUR ENJOYMENT OF PRO SPORTS OR WE START CONDEMNING ALL PERFORMANCE ENHANCERS -- NOT JUST DRUGS.
“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.
Sportscentre 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 naïve. 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.