Is it time to forgive Lance Armstrong? It appears we have forgotten. What was the last big headline about a failed drug test in professional sports? Armstrong quit wearing yellow in 2012. Maybe A-Rod being banned from baseball for a year back in 2014? It’s been a while.
Does this mean sports have succeeded in cleaning out locker room medicine cabinets? That’s doubtful. Baseball players look like NFL linebackers used to. NFL linebackers look like linemen from the Lombardi era. Lineman nowadays could fit into the skin of an average ox. Professional athletes are caricatures of comic book superheroes. This is completely anecdotal and proof of absolutely nothing, but things don’t seem normal to me. I am not crazy.
The World Anti-Doping Agency tests blood and urine samples from thousands of athletes every year. While only about 2% of these samples come up positive for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and other banned substances, actual instances of doping are estimated to be much higher. In one anonymous recent survey of 2,167 world-class amateur athletes published in the journal Sports Medicine, 57% admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in the past year and 70% admitted to taking supplements. The study concluded: “Doping appears remarkably widespread among elite athletes, and remains largely unchecked despite current biological testing.” (Ulrich, R., Pope, H.G., Cléret, L. et al. Sports Med (2018) 48: 211. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0765-4.)
Many have pointed out that PED users are way ahead of the PED testers. PEDs can be synthesized in hundreds of ways that cannot be detected by current tests. As soon as they are discovered, athletes are onto newer forms of the drugs.
If anything was learned in the PED scandals that occurred in professional cycling and Major League Baseball almost a decade ago, it is that drugs were good for business. As the BALCO dragnet began to rip under the artificially inflated weight of the many stars it snared and Barry Bonds was finally indicted, attendance for Major League Baseball began to fall in 2007 and has yet to recover. Stripping Armstrong bare-chested was even more devastating to cycling television ratings in the U.S.
Major League Baseball is now on a home run quest to win fans back. Whether due to juiced balls or juiced players (I believe probably both), balls are flying out of parks at a record rate far exceeding that of the peak of the steroid scandal, and two messages from the top couldn’t be clearer: We need to get back to where we were, and we are no longer interested in asterisks.
It is easier to believe that nobody in sports wants to crack down on drugs again than it is to believe that drug policies and testing have brought everything under control. We proved a golden goose swollen by human growth hormone will yield more eggs.
So, assuming PEDs in sports are more common than ever, that their use has dribbled down into collegiate and even high school sports, for which there is also ample anecdotal evidence, is it fair to continue ostracizing Lance Armstrong because he was the first user to be spectacularly successful before being caught back when we thought we cared?
It may be time to lay off, not because he didn’t cheat, because cheating is OK sometimes, or even because everyone else was doing it, too, but simply because none of us cares anymore. If we don’t care about this, why not commute the life sentences we handed down?
We now accept that many athletes are using PEDs, even if we don’t want to talk about it. We now know kids who decide to pursue careers in athletics understand what they are up against. Winning at all costs has so deeply imbedded itself in our culture that we have declinated our societal moral compass a few more degrees from true north toward the magnetism of celebrity.
Listening to A-Rod in the broadcast booth is as enjoyable to me as it is fascinating. His insight on the game of baseball and expression of knowledge of it are as good as I have listened to. I am a fan of him again. Extrapolating from this, I can see being interested in Le Tour again, if Armstrong is commentating from along the route.
What I would really like to see come out of this is that, released from the stigma that is nothing but droplets from condensed steam now, athletes will feel free to talk to us about their experiences with PEDs. Our kids will be educated, our curiosities will be satisfied, medical science will advance and maybe Barry Bonds will get into the Hall of Fame.
Roger Marolt thinks junk pitchers will eventually render the shift worthless. Email at [email protected].