I took the necessary drug test for my summer internship last Thursday. As I entered the company’s health center, a woman wearing a white lab coat and taking herself a tad too seriously asked me to remove the contents of my pockets onto a white paper towel that she had stretched out on a counter. She then handed me a small plastic container and advised me to enter the bathroom across the hall.
Thoughts of Barry Bonds and Floyd Landis started to flow, and I couldn’t help but envision myself failing the test because of the poppy-seed bagel I had eaten the morning before or the topical steroids I use to combat my psoriasis. Faced with a positive test, I saw myself trying in vain to explain to my now-not-so-guaranteed future employer that I hadn’t been doping but that rather these steroids were prescribed for my skin.
Just two years removed from Rafael Palmeiro’s finger-wagging lies to a Congressional panel, the state of steroids and doping in American sports is not much different than before. If anything, this sub-culture has only been pushed further underground. People still do steroids and still lie about it. If anything has become clear, it’s that an accusation can inflict nearly as much damage as a conviction. Furthermore, lying, denying and counter-accusing probably remain as effective a response for the accused as any.
But why has nothing changed? It’s not that we as a society, and moreover as a fan base, are so morally numb that the idea of cheating doesn’t have any impact on us. Instead, it’s because we place so much emphasis on competing and winning that deep down we understand the forces compelling athletes to use supplements and stimulants. The need not only to meet but also to exceed expectations is so prevalent in our culture that it can’t help but influence our judgment. And we at Yale probably understand this better than anyone.
Take Bonds, for example. Here’s a guy who was considered one of the top players in baseball through the first 15 years of his career. Whether you believe that he was jealous of Mark McGwire’s fame or that he was suffering from an extreme inferiority complex given his distinguished godfather, Willie Mays, you must know that something caused Bonds to seek out an edge.
If a Yale student could take a magic pill that would allow him or her to process and retain information more effectively, wouldn’t that student take said pill? For most of us, being among the best is really not enough. We think so much of ourselves and the hard work that got us here that a little edge is pretty enticing, especially when that edge is not explicitly against the rules of the league in which we play. And especially when our rivals and peers are indulging themselves in and reaping the benefits of this substance.
Now take Landis. His is a compelling testament to the power of living in another’s shadow. Faced with hundreds of miles of grueling competition and weighed down by the burden of America’s expectations, ol’ Floyd decided a little testosterone was all he needed to win the Tour de France and step out from Lance Armstrong’s shadow. He was right.
When called on it, Landis just pointed fingers and looked over his shoulder, as if to say, “Who? Me?” The result: No one is yet sure as to what type of indiscretions Landis participated in, and some, if not all, are probably willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Despite sitting out a quarter of the regular season after being suspended for steroids, Shawn Merriman led the NFL with 17 sacks in 2006. He then avoided culpability by suggesting that his positive test was actually the result of a legal supplement … “gone bad.” Either way, Merriman served his time and was never really shamed in the way we think cheaters should be.
What about Yale athletes? Would we as a student body accept the notion that Yale athletes were taking artificial supplements to enhance their performance, that they ingested pills and powders on a semi-daily basis in order to become quicker, faster and more productive? Well, they already do. And I have no problem with it.
But where can one draw the line? If Yale’s student-athletes could get away with rubbing a pro-hormone cream on their skin, would a couple more wins over Harvard be worth it? The answer is probably no, because the side effects of overindulgence in the steroid scene are catastrophic (think Florence Griffith Joyner). But isn’t it tempting? Isn’t the desire to be the best, at almost any cost, the motivation that got us to Yale and that will take us further?
Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Tuesdays.