|The Atlantic online|
The steroid era in sports isn't over. It's pretty tempting to think otherwise. Tempting to look at mandatory drug testing and fewer home runs and the incredible shrinking Mark McGwire and conclude performance-enhancing drug use in Major League Baseball is as passé as, well, Jose Canseco.
Don't be fooled.
Here's the thing about the steroid era: The whole concept is bogus. In reality, there's no such thing—no definable time period on a neatly marked calendar, with a Patient X beginning and a Mitchell Report ending, like the Renaissance or the Jurassic Period or seven seasons of HBO's "Arli$$."
Instead, there is simply steroid use. Present and ongoing. And that will never, ever cease. Not in sports. Not outside of sports. Definitely not in baseball, no matter how many years have passed since Roger Clemens was greeted with a verbal eruption to match the diner scene in "When Harry Met Sally," as opposed to federal subpoenas.
Exhibit A? Ryan Braun.
Last week, ESPN reported that the Milwaukee Brewers' star left fielder and National League Most Valuable Player tested positive during the playoffs for synthetic testosterone, a performance-enhancing drug. Braun, who is appealing the result, told USA Today that whole matter was "B.S."
Whatever the final outcome, the most surprising part of the whole story wasn't that Braun flunked a test—it was that so many people seemed surprised by the news. A New York Times article noted that Braun was "everything a baseball player was supposed to be, a guy who aced every test." In a statement, Brewers owner Mark Attanaiso called Braun "a model citizen in every sense of the word ... a person of character and integrity." Two years ago, MLB commissioner Bud Selig specifically cited Braun as one of the clean young players who demonstrated the effectiveness and deterrent value of baseball's drug-testing program. Until now.
All of them should have known better.
Fact: The notion that baseball is now relatively drug-free is laughably naïve. At best. Akin to believing in unicorns and/or the moral sanctity of college sports amateurism. At worst, it's disingenuous propaganda, a steaming platter of marketing hooey, served hot and fresh to a public that prefers its heroes free of weeping backne. Steroids are here to stay, because baseball is a competitive sport, and bigger, stronger, faster means the difference between first place and first loser.
Pop quiz: when did Selig say of steroid use in baseball that "we had a problem, and we dealt with the problem?"
a) In 2005;
b) In 2005, six years before Manny Ramirez dabbled in female fertility treatments;
c) In 2005, three years before MRI scans of Clemens' buttocks abscesses were introduced into the Congressional record;
d) All of the above.
Unconvinced? Try the following thought experiment. Picture a sport where court cases have been prosecuted. Where cheaters have been shamed and jailed. Where drug-testing grows ever more stringent, and the game's guardians repeatedly boast that each positive test proves not that deterrence is futile, but that the program is working as intended.
Now ask yourself: Is anyone ready to declare an end to the steroid era in track and field?
While working for Merrill Lynch, American shot-putter Adam Nelson once had to cut short a client meeting when urine collectors demanded he provide a random sample. Right then and there. Stop, drop, aim for the plastic cup. The process is invasive. Embarrassing. Tougher than anything required by baseball. Par for the Olympic sports course. And still not enough.
When it comes to juicing, the cat-and-mouse game between testers and cheaters is akin to Tom and Jerry. The rodent usually wins. After all, testing isn't foolproof. There are loopholes. Loopholes inside of loopholes. Ways to game the system. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reports:
It's easy to understand why Braun would use PEDs. MLB took 3,868 tests between the beginning of the 2010 offseason and the end of the 2011 World Series. Everyone on a 40-man roster took one within the first five days of spring training, which knocked off about 1,200. Each took another unannounced test during the season. And MLB threw in 1,200 more random tests for the rest of the year, playoffs included. The likelihood of a player's drug use aligning with a random test is tiny.
A few months ago, I spoke with BALCO mastermind Victor Conte, a man who knows a thing or 10 about sports doping. During an hour-long phone conversation, he regaled me with examples of how to beat current doping protocols; earlier this week, he told Yahoo! Sports that baseball players could hoodwink tests simply by taking drugs at night.
Small wonder, then, that Conte calls drug testing "IQ testing" - as in, you have to be stupid to get caught. He's hardly alone. Years ago, after President George W. Bush called for the eradication of steroids in professional sports during a State of the Union address, I asked Penn State epidemiologist and performance-enhancing drug expert Dr. Charles Yesalis two simple questions.
Was Bush's demand reasonable?
Was it even practical?
Yesalis' response was less than optimistic.
"When the Mark McGwire scandal broke, I said one thing you could do is have all these sports federations pool $100 million each and give it to chemists around the world, give them five years and see what research does to close loopholes," he told me. "Frankly, I wouldn't bet my house on that. With every loophole that closes up, another one opens."
Remember THG, the designer steroid at the heart of the BALCO scandal? It was engineered to be undectable. Disgraced sprinter Kelli White passed tests while using it. So did Marion Jones. Testers only caught on to THG when disgruntled track coach Trevor Graham slipped them a sample—reportedly in a used syringe—and told them to look for it.
Look back at some of the biggest doping busts of the previous decade. A pattern emerges. Testing doesn't catch cheaters. Police work does. State and federal investigators nabbed a South Carolina doctor who filled illegal steroid prescriptions for three members of the Carolina Panthers' 2004 Super Bowl squad. In 1998, customs officials at the French-Belgian border uncovered the biggest drug scandal in Tour de France history. Likewise, well-meaning chemists didn't dig up the book-length allegations against Bonds. Dogged cops and reporters did.
"What would work? Aggressive, undercover police sting operations," Yesalis said. "I'm talking handcuffs. Put it on 'Cops.' But are you willing to do that against Penn State, USC, the Baltimore Ravens, the Los Angeles Lakers, on a sustained basis?"
Good question. A performance-enhancing drug system that regularly nabbed the smartest, most sophisticated sports cheaters likely would be akin to enforcing the speed limit by having police cars stationed at every intersection: expensive, heavy-handed and hardly worth the trouble. Would it even ensure clean competition? Probably not. Prohibition didn't end drinking. Baseball's war on drugs is lot like the war on drugs as a whole—an unwinnable holding action, less a battle against specific, needle-jamming behavior than general human nature.
Where there's a will to cheat, there forever will be a way. And so long as millions of dollars are at stake, you can pretty much count on said will.
"I had a big-time football coach tell me one time, 'Well, steroid use is much like bridge-painting,'" Yesalis said. "'How can you get 800 feet in the air and paint? Well, it's my job.' The numerous elite athletes I've interacted with that have used drugs, about 1,000, they view those drugs as tools of their trade, the way you and I use computers."
If Braun's positive test is upheld, he faces a 50-game suspension. He also gets to keep nearly $141 million, the amount remaining on his Brewers contact. Don't be surprised when people choose to paint bridges.
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