Catching steroids ‘cheaters’ — by any means necessary

At the risk of sounding like a condescending scold — in other words, becoming like those I like to scold — I offer up a post from January written on the heels of media excuse-making about Baseball Hall of Fame voting (and in one case, the willful abstinence from casting a ballot).

The reason was the presence of suspected steroids users Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, among others, on the ballot. I’ll insert the second paragraph from that post at the end of the second paragraph of this post, since it’s particularly noteworthy given the news this week about major steroids-related suspensions about to come down in Major League Baseball. I wrote then:

This absolutism has at times been a disservice to the game, because it tends to whitewash or distort history. While historical interpretation is a largely subjective endeavor, the burden of placing the accomplishments of its greatest players in a proper, fair and accurate historical context has become an increasingly troublesome one.

The report at ESPN.com that MLB investigators were coming down especially harshly on reputed steroids distributor Tony Bosch — mainly by threatening him with crippling legal action — hasn’t generated much in the way of a full-throated endorsement of what would be severe suspensions to Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez and nearly two dozen other players.

The reported punishments are just that for now, not yet announced by MLB. Yet baseball’s pursuit in this case is already under close scrutiny in some media circles. Coming down the hardest is Patrick Hruby of Sports on Earth, who makes the usual connections to the War on Drugs, and how sports entities, despite stricter and stricter testing, can’t really make a dent unless they get the assistance of, or use methods approaching those in the law enforcement community.

steroids gameHe extensively quotes Penn State professor Charles Yesalis, a noted sports doping expert and author of “The Steroids Game,” published in 1998, about the time anti-doping institutions were being created. Fifteen years later, he says that while athletes aren’t particularly skilled at “evading aggressive law enforcement,” testing may never be fully effective:

“What would work? Aggressive, undercover police sting operations. 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?”

This is especially alarming to think about given how MLB is considered to have the toughest anti-steroids provisions of any professional sports league in North America.

The Biogenesis case could very well be a tipping point in escalating police-style investigation of suspected steroids users. But Yesalis thinks overly aggressive probes stand to backfire with a sports-loving public that hasn’t shown the same zeal to get rid of “cheaters” as sports league and agencies thirsting after good public relations.

The demonizing of steroids that the scolds think is coming from rank-and-file sports lovers is rather the handiwork of zealots, especially in the media, who can’t bear to have the “purity” of the games as they have known them tainted in any way.

Yesalis concludes that the onus really is on the fans, and that may be the biggest problem of all:

“Look, the best way to deal with [drugs in sports] is for all fans to boycott. It would be cleaned up almost instantaneously. But nobody gives a damn. In fact, these drugs make the product better for viewing and enjoyment. Do you want to watch a beauty contest where everyone is overweight and wearing no makeup?”

So where are some of these scolds now? Eerily quiet, or approaching the subject from a different perspective. Howard Bryant of ESPN.com, author of “Juicing the Game” and who sent in a blank Hall of Fame ballot, opted to pursue the labor angle, saying long-term suspensions would upset a hard-won peace stemming from the 1994 strike.

Surprisingly, Bryant is rather even-handed here, something I didn’t think possible on the subject: JuicingTheGame

The real issue is baseball’s attempt to suspend players for their association with a wellness clinic, without actual positive-test violations of the league’s drug policy. Melky Cabrera the one player linked to Biogenesis who has tested positive, already served his 50-game suspension. Unless documentation shows –assuming Bosch’s documentation is better, say, than Brian McNamee’s decade-old syringes and gauze in a Coke can — that Cabrera was still using PEDs after his suspension last season, it seems inconceivable that baseball would be able to suspend him again for essentially discovering the source of the original offense.

As I said, it’s all tied to serious labor strife Bryant predicts would surface if MLB wields a heavy hammer. It’s good to see at least a tiny bit of tacit acknowledgement that accused dopers do indeed have rights, a benefit of the doubt he wouldn’t confer upon them for Hall of Fame purposes. Bryant goes on:

The public is fatigued by the steroid era, and there was an expectation that players, especially star players such as Braun and Rodriguez, would act more responsibly.

But it seems the better option, or at least an accompanying one, would be to encourage player cooperation to glean information about how the Biogenesis 20 beat their tests (if they were in fact tested at all during the proper time frames).

Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, another A List doping scold, calls Bosch’s cooperation “a major breakthrough” for MLB, but otherwise is strangely muted.

Then there’s Bob Ford of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who uses the “cheating” word (and hails from a household with another sportswriter doping scold of the Lance Armstrong variety) as he offers up pure milquetoast:

Baseball has been the most successful – or perhaps the most willing – in the fight against performance-enhancing drugs. Maybe that is the result of the bad burn suffered by the sport when it giddily accepted the popularity boost during the record-destroying Steroid Era.

How has the sport been “burned?” Ford doesn’t elaborate. When it comes to the scolds making such declarations, you’re expected to take them at their word.

Even if their words appear to be falling on more and more deaf ears.

The Schoolmarm might be the oblivious of all, not even bothering to examine the process of the MLB investigation of Biogenesis, much less the sordid prospect of baseball climbing into bed with the likes of Bosch. Why? Because of the children:

Parents with teenagers in sports, boys and girls who studies show are already trying PEDs to play better, should be thankful that their kids will see the news of more athletes being disgraced by doping.

The next day she visited the subject again, citing how the public turned against Lance Armstrong “almost overnight after he admitted to using PEDs in January.” But it’s more likely the public was disturbed by shameful stories of his treatment of associates, team members and others in his circle who finally outed him as a jerk above all. Bosch is mentioned only in passing, since the worst offenders here are the “cheaters” — whether they’ve been found guilty of doping or not.

In linking to Tim Marchman’s scorching evisceration of the Biogenesis probe on Deadspin, Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab may have had the most prescient comment on this when he Tweeted on Thursday:

Is there any topic in which the trad media/new media divide is stronger than PEDs?


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