Floyd Landis and coming-clean courage

To some, this is a rogue's gallery of rats. But shouldn't whistle-blowers be praised, not buried? AP Photos

What's the first word that pops into your head as you read this list?

Floyd Landis.

Brian McNamee.

Jose Canseco.

Steve Wilstein.

Snitches? Rats? Pond scum?

Or, upon further review, are they in some way heroes whose allegations about performance-enhancing drug use in sports were painful acts of personal integrity?

All four of these men are in the middle of the mess we know as the steroids era. And it is a mess. It is the oil spill of sports. It spreads, it taints and it destroys. And no one has been able to stop it.

Landis is the most recent addition to the list. In a series of blockbuster e-mails obtained by ESPN.com and the Wall Street Journal last week, he admitted his own blood doping and leveled a series of specific charges against Lance Armstrong and other world-class cyclists.

The pattern of the Landis narrative leading up to last week's revelations is familiar. He was caught. He issued detailed and indignant denials. He was adjudicated to be a cheater in a court of law or in the court of public opinion or both. He then, and only then, had an apparent awakening of his conscience and decided to go public with an "honest" description of what he did, a description that dragged others into his world of shame and guilt.

With the exception of Wilstein (more on him a little later), that sequence of developments more or less applies to each of the people on the list with which we started.

The pattern continues with denunciations of Landis, or McNamee, or Canseco as an enemy of sport, as an extortionist, and as a liar, who was lying when he denied doping and is lying again when he accuses others of doping.

Even as each of them offered his evidence of cheating and doping, he became the target of scorn and abuse. Some reject the allegations despite long-standing suspicions about doping in the sport in question. Some say they simply are tired of these allegations. (There is a name for it -- "scandal fatigue.") Many more simply don't want to know. They love the story of Lance Armstrong -- cancer survivor, extraordinary success, those yellow bracelets. They love Roger Clemens. They love Mark McGwire. They don't want to hear anything bad about their idols.

It isn't easy to analyze Landis' allegations. It isn't easy to evaluate their plausibility. It's a lot easier to toss them aside as the claims of an embittered athlete whose only real regret is that he was caught.

Instead of looking hard at a scandal that continues to grow, many of us turn away, hoping it will somehow disappear.

The things that are happening to Landis right now have happened in similar ways to McNamee, Canseco and even Wilstein.

During the investigation that led to the Mitchell report, McNamee found himself face to face with agents of the FBI. A former cop, McNamee knew that if he lied to the FBI, he would face felony charges and likely land in prison. With no visible exit, McNamee told the agents and George Mitchell's investigators his story of administering drugs to Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Chuck Knoblauch.

In the most elaborate and emphatic denial the Steroid Era has seen, Clemens hired lawyers in Houston and Washington, sued McNamee, hired a public relations firm, hired a crisis management consultant and worked hard with all of them. But he has apparently succeeded only in making things even worse than they were. Leading members of both parties in the U.S. Congress listened to McNamee and to Clemens at a formal hearing and suggested to the Department of Justice that its prosecutors investigate Clemens for perjury.

They didn't make the same suggestion regarding McNamee.

On Tuesday, McNamee testified in front of the grand jury in Washington that is deliberating whether Clemens lied under oath that February day in 2008. If Clemens is indicted, many people no doubt still will resist the notion that he might have perjured himself, or that he ever used performance-enhancing drugs. It's a form of denial that is not unlike Clemens' own rejection of the accusations.

When McNamee went public with his story, it destroyed his career as a trainer for elite athletes. Although many people believe him, few want to be around him.

Canseco's story is different only in degree. Even though a number of the allegations in his books and interviews have been confirmed with hard evidence of the drug use he described, many people still seem to regard him as little more than a money-grubbing flake who can't be trusted.

That assumption ignores the fact that Canseco was willing to disclose what he knew about performance-enhancing drug use despite the fact that it would wreck whatever chance he had left to work in baseball.

We'll forgive Pettitte for his use of HGH. We'll forgive Miguel Tejada. Some may even forgive Barry Bonds. But will Canseco ever be forgiven for besmirching the national pastime?

Wilstein is the intrepid Associated Press reporter who spotted androstenedione on the shelf of Mark McGwire's locker stall during his home run record season in 1998. Wilstein's meticulously researched article was the first sign that something was seriously wrong in baseball as McGwire and Sammy Sosa were combining to hit 136 home runs and being held up as saviors of a game that had been wracked by a disastrous work stoppage four years earlier.

Did Wilstein win a Pulitzer Prize? No. With McGwire's manager, Tony La Russa, leading the charge, Wilstein was accused of snooping, even though the andro was plainly visible for anyone to see. Numerous writers and other media, some of whom must have also seen the andro and ignored it, joined in La Russa's condemnation of Wilstein. For the next decade or so, Wilstein was considered by many to be an enemy of baseball.

So think about this, especially if you consider Landis, McNamee, Canseco and Wilstein to be the bad guys of the steroids era: What do we do with Greg Anderson, who was one of Bonds' personal trainers? When federal investigators caught Anderson with the results of positive blood tests, drug purchase invoices and drug cycle schedules that appeared to be critical to their perjury case against Bonds, they brought him before a federal grand jury in San Francisco.

Anderson refused to answer prosecutors' questions. He protected his friend and client, leading to the dismissal of the charges against Bonds. (The prosecutors' appeal of the dismissal is now being considered in the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco.)

As the result of his efforts to protect Bonds, Anderson was found in contempt of court and sentenced to an indefinite period of incarceration. For most people, the prospect of prison leads to a decision to answer any and all questions. Most people will do whatever it takes to avoid time behind bars.

But Anderson apparently doesn't fall into the category of "most people." A power lifter, he's spent most of his adult life in weight rooms. In prison, he could continue to lift. Maybe 18 months behind bars didn't look that bad to Anderson.

Many view Anderson's refusal to incriminate his friend as loyalty, and a sort of heroism. Few suggest that Bonds is innocent, but there is among fans and observers a whiff of admiration as Bonds and Anderson try to beat the federal government.

Do we carry that same level of admiration for Landis, McNamee, Canseco or Wilstein? If we use words like "snitch" or "rat" or "pond scum" when we think about them, it's obvious that we don't.

My suggestion is that we consider a different vocabulary when we refer to those who are willing to pay the price for disclosing a form of wrongdoing that endangers the world of sports. It might not be easy, but we should drop "snitch" and "rat" and "pond scum" and start to use words such as "courage" and "integrity" and "sacrifice."

Unless people like Landis, McNamee, Canseco and Wilstein can tell their stories to an audience that will listen, the oil spill of sports will continue to grow.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.