We thought the Steroid Era was over.
Fans, executives, and analysts alike thought we had finally moved on from the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) that seemed to infiltrate nearly every sport. Athletes testified, Congress investigated, and strict drug-testing policies were put in place throughout professional and amateur athletics. MLB suspensions for steroid use dropped from seven in 2007 to just one in 2011. We even made it through a virtually positive-test-free Olympics just a month ago.
But just when you thought it was safe to believe that athletes had regained the ability to play fair, three steroid scandals have rocked the sports world in quick succession. San Francisco Giants star Melky Cabrera was suspended two weeks ago for 50 games after testing positive for high levels of testosterone. A’s pitcher Bartolo Colón received the same suspension for synthetic testosterone just a week later. Three others in the MLB already have been suspended in 2012, bringing the grand total to five. And of course, American cyclist Lance Armstrong will be stripped of all his Tour de France titles after dropping his fight against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Do they think we’re not looking anymore? Armstrong’s case has stagnated for years, but did Cabrera and Colón really think they could get away with it? And worse, they know what they’re doing is wrong, but they take absolutely no responsibility for it. I know careers and reputations and millions in endorsements are on the line, but there’s also a total lack of honesty.
Cabrera’s case is the worst example of the extreme effort steroid users take to cover their tracks. Melky’s associates set up a fake retail website with listings for vitamins and other supplements. They planned to challenge Cabrera’s suspension by alleging that he purchased supplements through the website without knowing about their illegal contents.
And Armstrong has challenged the allegations against him for years, despite the fact that almost everyone else on his former USPS cycling team has admitted to blood doping. Of course, we may never know the real story, as Armstrong won’t admit to any wrongdoing. His official statement to the press is a scathing denouncement of the USADA’s investigation — a thoroughly derisible tale about the vendetta against him — without any admission or rejection of steroid use. I’d like to believe in “innocent until proven guilty,” but given the circumstances and the conspicuous lack of rebuttal, there’s probably some truth behind the USADA’s investigation.
Don’t get me wrong, I still respect Armstrong, his fight against cancer, and his continued charity work. I understand that doping was extremely common in cycling just a few years ago. But when the truth comes out, it’s time to fess up just like everyone else. Instead, his continued failure to confess will only do more damage to his reputation, as will Cabrera’s extravagant attempt at a cover-up.
Maybe the recent return of PEDs to the media has made me a bit cynical about the end of steroid use. But there are thousands of athletes who seem committed to playing fair — perhaps Colón and Cabrera are just exceptions to the new baseball order. And Team GB medalist and Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins has never tested positive for PEDs. He represents the new generation of cycling stardom — and so far, so good. Yet it’s enough to make you worry that the product we’re seeing on the field, or the road, or on the court, is not a true representation of skill, determination, and training. Instead, to some extent, it’s still soiled by a seedy underworld of corrupt doctors, blood transfusions, and quiet acceptance of wrongdoing.
These lingering issues in professional sports give me hope for the beginning of another season of Yale athletics. Our sports teams may not be constantly in the national spotlight or in the hunt for bowl games, but our student-athletes, and college athletes in general, do represent a “purity” that’s missing from professional sports these days. They work hard, study hard, and are dedicated to honest training without doping. Without the worries of contracts and sponsorships, there’s no need for artificial improvement. They’ve got so much going for them that it’s unnecessary.
That’s not to say that college sports are a bastion of everything that’s right about sports. Clearly, high-level college football represents a lot of what’s wrong. We’ve been shocked by scandals at Penn State and dismayed by bribes and recruiting violations at Ohio State and numerous other schools. But I believe the lack of intense media scrutiny and analysis makes Yale and the rest of the Ivy League a great home for what a student-athlete should be.
Isn’t that ironic? The athletes that receive little national attention are the least likely to get into trouble with performance-enhancing drugs. Not to say that the correlation here implies strict causation — our athletes deserve our support and interest. Get out and see your friends and your school on the field this fall. Professional sports can and will still be an entertaining spectacle, but Yale student-athletes are a fantastic reminder of what sport is all about — unobscured by drugs and dishonesty.