Why do other sports fans and the media have a general indifference to performance enhancing drug stories?

Features | Thursday 31 January 2013 by

Earlier this week a story broke about several big name baseball stars whose names appeared on the client list of an anti-ageing clinic as recipients of performance enhancing drugs. It included Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees, and the Blue Jays own Melky Cabrera.

That is the same Melky Cabrera, I might add, who tested positive for testosterone just last season as a member of the San Francisco Giants and who served a fifty game suspension, before this winter signing on with the Jays as a result of his inflated stats by the way of drug use. I said at the time what a bad idea it was to touch this guy, but the Jays went for it anyway and to their delight the media have given it little attention from a drug related angle.

This weeks story has the potential to be huge news, though there’s also a chance it could fall off the sports pages pretty quickly. What I mean by that is that it’s hard to tell how it will go over because this isn’t cycling, it isn’t the cycling media reporting it, and it’s not cycling fans demanding the truth.

There’s a kind of blasé attitude to drugs in North American sports by the media and fans and certainly a lack of scrutiny of the athletes who are ever linked to drugs, who may even look suspicious, or even those who test positive. The stories drift in and out of the news in a twenty-four hour period and everyone moves on.

As a friend suggested yesterday, “I watch sport to be entertained, I don’t really care.” I don’t think he’s alone with that view and those who do care are happy to put their faith in the testing system and believe that they’ll weed out the cheats. There’s even a few out there who believe it isn’t really cheating — more gaining an edge — unless you get caught.

That approach is the polar opposite to that of the cycling fan.

If this were a cycling story it would remain in cycling related media outlets for weeks on end and you’d be fishing through stories online to find something not related to the scandal. Twitter would be abuzz with with some tweeting incessantly about it giving nothing else a mention regardless of what race might be taking place at the time. Of course, that kind of coverage is suffocating, it’s far too much, and it can get very tedious very quickly, but on the other hand the coverage of this baseball story, or lack there of, isn’t healthy either.

I picked up the Toronto Star this morning and the only mention of the whole scandal was in relation to Alex Rodriguez’s involvement in an article by Richard Griffin. It was a good article, but it was the only one. There wasn’t a single mention of Melky Cabrera. Indeed, the day the story broke it took until the fifth story on that night’s sports news for it to be mentioned and the next day Cabrera was only mentioned in an associated press article several pages into the paper.

Why is their no heat being put on this guy from the local media, you ask? Why is their no scrutiny? Is it really because they don’t want to bring bad news on what’s been a good off-season for the Jays that has seen them become a potential World Series favourite? Is it really because what some have suggested, that he served a fifty game suspension for a positive drug test last season and this new information pre-dates that, thus he’s already been punished and it’s time to just move on? Or is it because a drugs story in sports outside of cycling just doesn’t carry much care from the media to the sports fan?

I fear it’s a little of all of the above which is quite sad.

A few nights ago I hopped onto an unofficial Blue Jays blog to gather what the fan reaction might be and was left stunned as the article seemed to question whether there was a need to care at all? Some of the comments below the story left me unsure whether to feel dismayed for sport, feel pity for those fans, or just laugh at the whole thing?

Here is one portion from that blog that jumped out and was a fine example of where the mentality of the North American sports fan is at in many regards:

Those who fail tests should be punished, and the program should be continuously expanding to have the best, most reasonable list of banned substances possible. But can’t we just leave it at that and skip the retroactive witch hunting, the insufferable character assassination, and the flat out wrong assumption of cause and effect that comes with all this stuff?

That’s the attitude Lance Armstrong wishes the cycling community had taken for he’d still be a seven time champion living a care free life if they did. The idea that because it doesn’t involve hard-core anabolic steroids with a cause and effect that doesn’t make your head double in size, means we shouldn’t really care, is pathetic. Many drugs – testosterone included — can be far more beneficial than steroids … aiding in recovery is just as bad (or good, if you’re the cheat) as aiding in power when it comes to performance enhancement. The idea that it isn’t black and white is the biggest misconception of them all because it really is black or white … if it’s on the banned substance list and the player crosses that line, they deserve everything that comes at them.

In some ways, as a cycling fan in 2013 — with Lance Armstrong and many of his compatriots now found out — I was a little jealous of the view that we should just put our faith in the testing and leave it at that because there are many anti-doping fans who masquerade as cycling fans that could heed such advice these days and give us all a little break ahead of an exciting new season. But this is only because cycling’s testing program is the finest in the sporting world. To hear it from a baseball fan — or indeed a fan of any other sport — is a bad case of burying the head in the sand.

Of course, you might tell me it’s a case of burying my head in the sand by wanting cycling fans to move on and let a dirty past go, but you can move on without forgetting the past. Move on while being vigilant that it doesn’t come creeping back in again. But I’m not sure how well it serves cycling’s reputation for people to report and tweet non-stop about doping from the history of cycling?

For other sports, until which times as their testing is on par with cycling — blood testing and out of competition testing with two year suspensions for first time offenders, at least — with a media scrutiny that holds those associated with drugs fully accountable and goes looking for the truth, then there can be no room for looking the other way and hoping for the best.

Of course, this whole relaxed attitude to doping isn’t limited to baseball. Right now in Spain there is the ongoing trial of Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes regarding his administering of PED’s to cyclists for many years up to and including the 2006 season when Operation Puerto finally exposed the truth. The problem however is that only 30 per cent of his clients — according to the good doctor — were cyclists. Many were football (soccer) stars, tennis players and track and field athletes, but the Spanish authorities are making sure those athletes aren’t named and are limiting it to the cyclists. The Spanish certainly don’t want the truth coming out about their success at national and international level in football for that might anger the fans not to mention tarnish their global sporting reputation. Cycling is the easy sacrifice, for those fans want to know the truth.

Then there is the story of NFL star Ray Lewis who during this weeks Super Bowl media day was asked about a Sports Illustrated story that alleges he used a ‘Deer Antler Spray’ that contains the banned substance IGF-1 in order to help him overcome an injury. Lewis’s response was uncanny in it’s likeness to ones we’ve heard before from Lance Armstrong as he said that he “wouldn’t give that report or [the reporter] any of my press,” and that the reporter was “not worthy of that”.

He went on to claim: “I’ve been in this business 17 years, and nobody has ever got up with me every morning and trained with me. Every test I’ve ever took in the NFL — there’s never been a question of if I ever even thought about using anything. So to even entertain stupidity like that. …”

You know, Ray, Lance never failed a test either.

Of course, Lewis couldn’t quite leave it at that, just as Lance couldn’t help himself at times either:

“When I tore my tricep, the doctor looked at me after I went in the office and she told me that I was out for the year. And I said, ‘Doc, are you sure?’ I said, ‘Nah.’ I said, ‘Doc, there’s no way I’m going to be out for the year with just a torn tricep.’ I said, ‘I’ve been through way worse.’ She was like, ‘Ray, nobody’s never come back from this.’ I said, ‘Well, nobody’s ever been Ray Lewis, either.’”

So a qualified doctor who is obviously experienced in the recovery of this injury was wrong because she’s never met Ray Lewis before? Ray Lewis must be super human… Wait, what is it us cycling fans have come to understand about performances that are beyond human and appear too good to be true…?

Yes, I thought so.

What’s sad of course — going back to the coverage such things get in the media — is that many commentators on this on the radio or TV made light of it and shook it off by humoring themselves with the fact it was a product called ‘Deer Antler Spray’. Yes, that is amusing, but don’t use it to deflect the story away.

And on and on it goes and if it isn’t cycling then there isn’t the care to really care and that — as a cycling fan — is the nut of this whole essay.

Look, at the end of the day, baseball fan’s — like fans of football, American football, tennis, hockey etc. — aren’t well versed in the ugly world of performance enhancing drugs. That’s mostly thanks to the fact Major League Baseball did no testing what-so-ever during what became known as the ‘Steroids Era’ of the 1990′s. When cycling fans were finding out the realities of drug use in sport thanks to the Festina scandal of 1998, baseball fans were cheering on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to the single season home run record.

Still despite it’s lack of testing by comparison to cycling, Major League Baseball deserves some credit. It’s been confirmed that the MLB were actively investigating this clinic before the story broke this week. They have an investigation department that looks into cases of drug use and given the testing resources available to them they are catching some. They’ve come on light years since the McGwire, Sosa and Barry Bonds days when they didn’t test at all. Unfortunately though, in many ways they are still gagged from pressing ahead with further testing and better punishment by the Collective Bargaining Agreement they have with the Players Union, a union that would no doubt stand firmly in the way of instituting the kind of measures we see in cycling, such as a competitor losing his job if he’s found to have tested positive. I know the New York Yankees would love such a policy today as they consider some loophole that might allow them out of Rodriguez’s monster contract.

Yes, this sports fan is seriously conflicted. It isn’t easy being a cycling fan to see what your sport is being put through and the standard to which it is being held, while also being a baseball fan (not to mention a hockey fan and a football (soccer) fan) and seeing how the media and fans react to similar scandals.

In the ideal world there would be some kind of middle ground in which Melky Cabrera was this week facing a barrage of questions from the Blue Jays media and calls from the fans to the club to release him, but without feeling the need to drag the story on into and through the entire season as might happen if it were the cycling media overseeing baseball. And likewise, in cycling, to cool it a little in this obsession with pointing out how dirty the sport has been without considering how many other great aspects there are to it and how bright the future appears to be.

Neither looks likely and so I’ll have to make do with watching my various sports where the standards to which they are held — by my fellow fans and the media — when it comes to performance enhancing drug use, is seriously conflicted. The cycling fan will question an ‘unworldly’ performance, while a fan of another sport might praise it.

I on the other hand will have to try and see them all equally, as hard as that might be, and remember that cycling is ahead of the curve despite how it might be portrayed, and not to go so hard on it all the time.

On that note, I should maybe shut up about drugs in cycling on here for a while…

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