It would be easy, in light of recent events, to pile on to Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun. It would be easy to toss them aside as cheaters. It would be easy to assume that every professional athlete is under suspicion, regardless of innocence or guilt. The cumulative blowback of performance enhancing drugs would make all of these things easy, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to do so. That said, it’s worth looking at Major League Baseball, and really, all of professional sports, too, for its culpability it plays in this issue.
It’s fair to say that each player who used PEDs did so of their own free will — be it in searching for a contract, looking for a big pay day, needing to rehab from injury, or just being able to make it in the big leagues. No one forced them. It was a calculated risk. For some, using PEDs worked. For others, it may cost them everything. We, as a collective fandom, are forced to wonder, and may never have real answers one way or another. And, fair or unfair, we watch these players from our perches on sofas and in bars and in arenas and stadiums, to cast judgment on them for their actions. But is it necessarily all on the players?
I am not here to tell anyone how to think about the issue of PEDs. I am not excusing players who have gotten caught or admitting to using when these drugs were banned. I can’t fault any writer who refused to put them in the Hall of Fame. I cannot argue with those who suggest that records should have asterisks next to them. I hear you. For some of these things, I agree with you. I grew up watching sports, I played a DI sport in college, and would love to believe that every athlete is clean, but that is not reality. I don’t excuse those who do, and I don’t qualify use, “Well, he used, but it was only for an injury.” I would love to see PEDs out of sports. And while there are efforts to do so, it might not be enough, ever.
Steroids and PEDs are no longer the obvious, acne-causing, rage-inducing agents that they used to be. If reports are to be believed, these drugs now come in injections, and tablets, and horse cream, your own oxygenated blood, and deer antler spray. (By the way, who was the one who thought of that? Really? Shouldn’t you be looking for better things to do with such biochemical knowledge?) Major League Baseball will be the first of the major sports leagues to test for HGH this year, and the NFL may follow suit soon. The leagues can test for what they know — HGH, anabolic steroids, testosterone. But they cannot test for what they don’t know about. Come on, raise your hand if you honestly knew that PEDs could be found in deer antler spray. Exactly. I bet half of us don’t know what on earth that is even intended to be used for, but I digress.
Players will always look for an advantage. Maybe it’s that milestone in that contract that sets off a bonus. Maybe it’s looking to be the highest paid guy in the game. Maybe it’s a sense of ego or hubris that makes a player legitimately believe that he or she will never get caught. These sorts of players will always look to gain an illegal competitive advantage, but unfortunately, MLB, and the other leagues, will always be playing catch-up. We just got around to testing for HGH and “traditional” steroids in the last decade or so. How can you even test for a deer antler spray? Is whatever it contains even illegal under the CBA? What if it’s not? What if it’s the same thing as a vitamin? What if what is the performance enhancing component is actually something that is completely safe and legal, but in an aerosol-ized form creates an agent that illegally boosts on-field production, or healing, or whatever else it can do? How can it be possible for the leagues to keep up with the ever-changing drugs, particularly if a league doesn’t know about them?
The system is broken.
I don’t know what the solutions are. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to visualize a sports culture in which PEDs and “anti-aging” agents are not used by players. But I think it’s more unrealistic to assume that the leagues will limit, decrease, or all together stop testing for these items, either. I don’t know if the solution is to allow players to be treated by HGH for injury by team doctors within amended confines of the CBAs, that way no player reaches out to a “doctor” (I use that term very, very loosely) who specializes in concoctions sold out of a strip mall shop in Miami. I don’t know if the solution is to allow players to use drugs A, B, and C, previously constituted as banned PEDs, as legal agents under a team doctor’s care. I don’t know if the leagues, or other sports entities, will entirely be able to clean up their programs. It seems like every time we get one step ahead, we take two steps back, as leagues and as fans. None of these solutions are easy. None are perfect. None may work. But what’s the alternative?
So, yes, it’s easy to point the finger at a player. It’s very easy to cast judgment. It’s easy to lump all players, admitted users, users whose baseline tests were leaked, those who got off on technicalities, and those questioned players whom no one has any real evidence on but are no longer given the benefit of the doubt into one big, shunned category. It’s easy for Yankees fans to pile on Alex Rodriguez. I won’t blame you if you did. But it really isn’t that easy. It will never be that easy. Because even that player who isn’t testing dirty might really be using, it’s just that the leagues haven’t caught up to him or her yet. And the leagues may never. The system is broken. It needs fixing. And unfortunately, that will not be easy.