Wanted: Real leadership on doping
August, 9, 2013
By Henry Abbott
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMLB players such as Paul Konerko called for tough testing a decade before baseball got serious.Doping is all over the sports section these days, which must be a little depressing for sports fans hoping that this was behind us.
On the other hand, if you generally hate being lied to, well, here comes the truth! In a way, this is like getting a bad diagnosis. A harsh day, to be sure. But in reality, nothing like as bad as the unnamed day when you actually got the disease. At least now we can get busy on the cure.
Let the healing begin.
Knowing your enemy is an essential first step of the battle. Back when doping happened entirely in secret, the wise men who led sports -- the executives, the commissioners, the unions and the like -- were shadowboxing an enemy built entirely of guesswork. Who was doping? What with? When? Where?
Now we have a lot of real information. The Mitchell report on baseball. The USADA report on Lance Armstrong and his teammates. The unfolding collection of Biogenesis documents. Now we have dozens of firsthand accounts from everyone from Tyler Hamilton to Kirk Radomski, who are saying, essentially, This is how it really works, and I know because I was one of the ones who lived it.
Many also add how glad they are to have come clean and that it's all over.
When you look at what those people have to say, however, the truth of doping is so very different from what we had imagined.
And so many things we thought we knew about PEDs are proving to have been misguided. The early tests, it turns out, were fairly easy to beat. Yes, even heroes cherished for bravely battling cancer can cheat. And PEDs help with all kinds of things, not just getting big.
Myth: Athletes want to cheat.
Here's one more old assumption: Athletes want to cheat, and the wise old men who lead sports are losing sleep trying to catch them.
There may be some of that. But the evidence points just as much in the opposite direction, as in: There are plenty of athletes hoping for more serious testing, and as often as not it's the power brokers at the top of the sport who are the obstacles.
“It's huge,” Derrick Rose told ESPN The Magazine about PEDs in 2011. “I think we need a level playing field, where nobody has that advantage over the next person."
In one of the great mind-benders of all time, Rose would recant that statement a few days later, saying, "I do not recall making the statement, nor do I recall the question being asked. If that was my response to any question, I clearly misunderstood what was asked of me. But, let me be clear, I do not believe there is a performance-enhancing drug problem in the NBA."
Whatever Rose really meant, what’s interesting here is not just the assertion that NBA players use PEDs but also that here's an athlete who undeniably sounds as though he'd like the sport to be clean.
From the stands, many of us fans assume athletes would prefer the freedom to use whatever performance enhancers they’d like. But it's hard to find anyone, even a confessed doper, making that case. Talk to athletes who know firsthand the life in a doped-up sport, and a huge number of them are adamant it’s well worth aggressively pursuing a level playing field.
In The New York Times, Tyler Kepner tells a baseball tale about how, a decade ago, several clean, young White Sox players, including Paul Konerko, considered boycotting toothless early MLB drug tests in the hope of inspiring tougher testing down the road. This -- players insisting on invasive testing -- is the opposite of what we once assumed would happen.
One of those players, Kelly Wunsch, is now retired, and tells Kepner he can hardly watch baseball these days, as his mind gets stuck wondering how much of what he's seeing is the result of cheating. "The better, the stricter and the more all-encompassing the testing can be, the more we can relax, sit back and enjoy these athletes," he said.
Athletes don't want to cheat. Not as an end goal. What they want is to succeed at their jobs, make money and win.
If the sport is well-policed and you can do all those things clean, so much the better, say the grizzled truth-telling veterans of cycling, the sport that has been through the hottest fires of the PEDs inferno.
Cyclist David Millar tells a story from early in his cycling career. He was a promising young cyclist who suddenly found himself struggling to keep up with the pack after a few years as a professional. We would later learn that was the time when most of the big names in cycling started using the banned blood booster EPO. In his book “Racing Through the Dark,” Millar tells this tale from the 1997 Tirreno-Adriatico race:
Just as I was about to give up the ghost, I looked up and saw Robbie McEwen, the Australian sprinter, swing out of the line of riders, waving his arm in the air, angrily shouting obscenities. ... He put his head down and started sprinting back up to speed alongside the line of riders, only to begin ranting again.
“F---ING JUST STOP!” he screamed. “THIS IS NOT F---ING BIKE RACING!”
Millar was entirely sympathetic. Teammates who doped knew to hide it from Millar, who loudly told anyone who’d ask that he’d never doped. He was the brash good boy of the Cofidis team.
Years into his career, however, he grew tired of waiting for the executives to get serious about drug cheaters. Doping was everywhere, and could have, in his view, been fairly easily cleaned up, but nobody would even acknowledge the problem. The words McEwen had been screaming fell on deaf ears, as one doper after another won the Tour de France and every other big race.
In the following years, Millar grew bitter at the upside-down world he lived in, where “classless idiots were considered to be great champions.” Eventually Millar decided to join the dopers who, in his view, nobody was trying much to stop. It's a tale many cyclists have told: They resisted doping for years and assumed they would never try it, then tired of waiting for those in charge to do anything about it and eventually caved to team pressure to ride as fast as possible.
It's the job of sports' leaders to run the sport so that athletes determined to be clean have a shot at staying that way and succeeding.
In search of leadership
- When Derrick Rose made his comments, the NBA had testing that trailed behind today's, which is said to lag far behind the status quo even now.
- When the young White Sox were clamoring for better tests, baseball had yet to meaningfully test players for any PEDs even though tests were readily available then.
- The man who led cycling in 1997, Hein Verbruggen, famously insisted that Lance Armstrong "never, never, never" doped, something not even Armstrong says anymore.
In other words, there's plenty of evidence of athletes welcoming much more serious tests when they would have been incredibly helpful in preventing broad doping scandals. Much tougher to find, however, are demonstrations of major sports executives expressing anything like that conscience or vision in public. Without a major scandal to force the issue, has the head of any league ever said anything like: "We have a big problem we need to address"?
And yet, such problems have touched almost every sport -- which means the executives are clueless or concerned with making the sport appear cleaner than it really is.
Baseball now leads the North American pro sports with the quality of its testing, but that didn't come about from groundbreaking leadership nor technological breakthroughs. It took a full decade of near-infinite scandal, after which the powers-that-be have relented to a protocol that could have been implemented years earlier. (What can baseball say to clean players who lost their jobs to dopers while the league failed to do good testing that was readily available?)
Verbruggen's cycling organization had nominal testing but never came close to catching Armstrong -- even though he was taking just about every doping product there is, just about all year. That sport's testing only got serious when, after losing all credibility, outsiders were brought in to run the show. Naturally, the report damning Armstrong isn't from the governing body of international cycling, it's from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
For the NBA, this is interesting. The job of policing PEDs falls to the NBA's head lawyer, Rick Buchanan, to be collectively bargained with the union, which has no real leader at the moment.
Meanwhile, I've had NBA union officials tell me they can't imagine why they'd want any athlete tested for anything. And NBA officials have intimated for years, publicly and privately, that they're confident they don't have a problem and their testing program is laudable. But with effective drugs readily available from anti-aging clinics, doctors and online across the nation and around the globe, and testing that could easily be defeated, what could their confidence be built of other than hope?
As someone interested in clean and healthy competition, I'm ready to celebrate anyone who boldly sticks his neck out to insist on the best possible tests. I can't wait until, at that, sports' leaders catch up to the athletes.