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Few spectacles have divided the sports world quite like the Ray Lewis farewell tour. Arguably the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history, Lewis made an improbable comeback from a torn triceps muscle to rule center stage during the Baltimore Ravens’ march through the playoffs—and he didn’t disappoint. From his hip-swiveling pregame revelry to his postgame emotional outbursts—where he clawed the turf like a pilgrim at Lourdes, sobbing benedictions to Football Jesus—it was easy to forget he actually played in the games.
The more Lewis was praised for his on-field heroics, the more the media around him seemed determined to make him pay for his off-field transgressions, specifically his involvement in a double murder that occurred in Atlanta after Super Bowl XXXIV, in 2000. Many believe that Lewis covered up for his entourage, the prime suspects in the killings, and the crime was never solved. The linebacker was forced to cop a plea after initially misleading investigators, earning him a year’s probation from the court and a $250,000 fine from the NFL. Lewis was also taken to task for never directly addressing, much less apologizing to, the families of the murdered men, instead insisting that God works in mysterious ways.
This may explain the glee that exploded from sportswriters—already bored with Super Bowl hype week—when Lewis was linked to a nutritional supplement called deer antler velvet—an over-the-counter product that contains insulin-like growth factor-1, a hormone banned by the NFL and almost every other sports organization, pro and amateur. To Lewis’ detractors, this created the thrilling possibility that the future Hall of Famer had been caught doping.
It explained so much: the roaring aggression, the career endurance, the almost superhuman recovery from a triceps rupture at such an advanced age (37 at the time). This was the “gotcha” moment they were waiting for.
Never mind that knowledgeable sports nutrition scientists dismissed deer antler velvet as a viable performance booster. The trace amount of IGF-1 in these products and the sublingual delivery method make it unlikely that the substance has any significant potency (although the manufacturers may disagree). In fact, last April, deer antler velvet was removed from the official banned list by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). If Lewis was jacked up on anything, it didn’t come from Bambi.
In the end, the controversy became just another footnote to the Lewis legend, giving way to America’s great secular holiday, the Super Bowl, where the Ravens, and Lewis, triumphed. The suspected murder conspirator, presumed doper, and gridiron Elmer Gantry had gone out a winner.
About two weeks earlier, a very different sports doping controversy was playing out on the nation’s television screens. A stone-faced Lance Armstrong sat across from America’s confessor, Oprah Winfrey, and divulged (some) details of how his record seven-straight Tour de France wins were accomplished with the help of a sophisticated performance-enhancing drug (PED) regimen. The disgraced cyclist tried several rationales to justify his actions, but failed to evince enough tearful remorse to satisfy critics. Only Armstrong’s cancer charity, Livestrong, survived the complete annihilation of his brand, and a few months later even they cut ties with him.
Welcome to the never-ending saga of PED use in elite sports. Whether they’re minor sideshows or the main event, these dramas play out as farce (Lewis), tragedy (Armstrong), or something in between (just about everybody else). These controversies are amplifed by an omnipresent sports media locked in a state of perpetual bamboozlement by their unfamiliarity with the properties of PEDs and a puzzling inability to refrain from knee-jerk moralizing every time an athlete makes a rational cost-beneft analysis to earn more money and glory by ingesting a few pharmaceutical products.
A competitive athlete is hardwired to do anything it takes to beat the competition, and can earn enormous rewards for doing so. You should know—you’re paying for those rewards. Just take a look at your latest cable bill, which helps absorb the growing fees that ESPN and other sports networks pay for the rights to bring these juiced-up jocks into your living room.
Among self-serving fallacies, few can match Bud Selig’s pronouncement in 2010 that Major League Baseball’s “steroid era” was in the past. MLB now had a state-ofthe- art drug-testing regimen that came with stif penalties, he insisted. Home run derbies starring muscle-bound hulks with expanding heads were a thing of the past. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens—the Mount Rushmore of baseball steroid use—are being denied Hall of Fame glory. Baseball, it seemed, had changed.
The truth is that the only thing that changed is that dopers were forced to adapt to a new environment. No longer could a player like the late Ken Caminiti travel down to Tijuana, pump up on PEDs, then go on to win the MVP. While players are no longer walking pharmacies, they’re still using—albeit judiciously—in contradiction to Selig’s statement.
That became obvious this past June 4, when ESPN reported that MLB would seek 100-game suspensions for players who allegedly used PEDs from a now-defunct Miami clinic called Biogenesis. Superstars Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun were among the 20 Biogenesis clients targeted by MLB, and, according to ESPN, if the suspensions are upheld, the PED scandal will become the largest in American sports history.
All of this without the evidence of a failed drug test. This is not unusual. Lance Armstrong, the world’s most notorious doper, never tested positive—and he estimates he took more than 500 drug tests over the course of his career, many of them in international Olympic labs under the guidelines of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
This doesn’t surprise Paul Scott, owner of drug-testing laboratory Scott Analytics. Scott is the former director of clients at the UCLA Olympic Analytic Laboratory, and has been at the forefront of anti-doping science for years. He says that smart dopers like Armstrong don’t have much of a problem beating the system.
“If people stick to the endogenous compounds in very small concentrations, it’s going to be very difcult for them to be caught,” Scott says.
Endogenous substances are among those the human body already makes, and that includes testosterone. Today’s athlete has easy access to testosterone gels and troches, or lozenges, which are low-dose and fastacting, meaning they can clear the body quickly—another way to beat drug tests.
Armstrong’s elusiveness frustrated regulators. The Livestrong hero had long been reviled for his arrogance and malicious litigiousness against his enemies, but he remained untouchable, a national icon. Then American cyclist Floyd Landis failed a drug test after winning the 2006 Tour de France, launching a series of events that fnally exposed Armstrong as a serial doper.
Catching Armstrong required signifcant assistance from the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in coordination with the U.S. Anti-Doping Administration (USADA), run by a bureaucrat named Travis Tygart. For years Armstrong was Tygart’s white whale, an obsession that seemed forever out of his reach. But a steady diet of lawsuits, whistleblowers, and eyewitness testimony forced Armstrong to throw in the towel. In a sense, he was litigated into confessing his crimes.
Besides exposing cycling’s culture of doping and revealing Armstrong to be a weapons-grade tool, the Tour de Lance scandal demonstrated the signifcant limitations of USADA drug testing. You’d never know it the way Tygart waved around Armstrong’s scalp to journalists. Without angry cyclists turning on Armstrong, and the numerous subpoenas and depositions engineered by the signifcant enforcement power of the Justice Department and FDA, Tygart would never have gotten his man. As unsympathetic as Armstrong was, many wondered why the federal government had committed so many resources to expose him. Some in Congress asked that very question, and it’s still not clear how much taxpayer money was spent pursuing the cyclist.
There’s little doubt that Armstrong was guilty, but he had plenty of company. For decades, cycling was immersed in a pervasive doping culture that precluded competing at a high level without pharmaceutical equality with the competition. This is known as the “use or lose” dilemma.
“When it comes to the cycling Grand Tours, during the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, a culture made it nearly impossible to participate in the sport without [doping],” says Scott, who, besides running a world-class drug testing lab, is also the founder and chief science ofcer of the Agency for Cycling Ethics.
This gives weight to those who claim that Tygart and USADA engaged in selective prosecution. Armstrong was stripped of his seven titles, and Tygart has to know that each year’s runner-up was also likely doping. But each year’s runner-up also wasn’t Lance Armstrong.
Targeting big names is becoming a habit of Tygart’s USADA. On June 5, a USADA ofcial ordered Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn to submit her urine for a drug test while attending a fashion awards show. Fresh from walking the red carpet in a custom-made gown, Vonn was forced to march into a bathroom and pee in a cup. USADA has every legal right to demand out-of-competition tests for Olympic athletes, but humiliating Vonn at a high-profle event is a grotesque stunt and needless power play. USADA’s actions show that athletes aren’t the only ones who exploit the current drug-testing regimen to serve their own personal agendas.
Baseball’s Biogenesis scandal has parallels to Armstrong’s case. It wasn’t sparked by drug tests, but by a whistle-blower who shared the clinic’s internal documents with the Miami New Times. Then MLB brought a lawsuit against the clinic’s owner, Tony Bosch, and, though legal experts considered the lawsuit to have little merit, the mounting legal fees forced Bosch to cooperate with the league and start talking. Those familiar with the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) have doubts that MLB will be able to succeed in penalizing “the Biogenesis 20” with 100- game suspensions. But it may not matter. The names are out there. Being publicly branded is often worse than the suspension itself.
Sportswriters are often unwitting accomplices to this proxy punishment. In the ’90s, journalists were about as vigilant on the doping issue as C.C. Sabathia is about his diet. Now they see juiced athletes everywhere, and they’re not afraid to raise the issue, no matter how tenuous the evidence.
When fools rush in, they often bring a keyboard with them. Take sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe, who wrote a column on May 8 about Red Sox star David Ortiz, who was of to a great start this season at the age of 37. That was enough for Shaughnessy to suspect that Ortiz may be juicing. Besides Ortiz’s age, Shaughnessy’s only other evidence was that Ortiz is from the Dominican Republic, where anabolic steroids are easier to buy, he reasons. If you have the slightest knowledge about PEDs and drug testing, this makes no sense at all. But Shaughnessy’s baseless rumors forced Ortiz to address his possible drug use.
This is the type of uninformed conjecture that’s more often found coming from long-established sports columnists. The new breed of sports journalist grasps the nuances of the issue, realizing that inefective drugtesting regimens are often in place for public relations purposes rather than for catching dopers—a situation that continues to put many athletes into a “use or lose” situation.
Some athletes are taking matters into their own hands—particularly boxers, who are plagued with a defcient drug-screening system and are at a greater disadvantage against PEDenhanced competition than those in teamoriented sports. An organization called the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) was established to allow boxers and MMA fghters to submit to a carbon isotope ratio screening, a more expensive but thorough drug test superior to those used by MLB and other athletic organizations. With a single competitor to worry about, a boxer or MMA fghter can challenge his or her opponent to pay for and submit to this test to satisfy both camps.
Despite advances in testing protocols, the number of athletes who test positive remains statistically stable. “The smart doper has more risks than he had 10 years ago, but it isn’t a big surprise that if you look at the WADA statistics, it’s hovered around 1 to 2% forever,” says Scott. “It doesn’t seem to change.”
Some sportswriters and fans are gaining a more honest assessment about PEDs. To them, anabolic steroids are no longer the frightening, magical elixirs that turn men into monsters. The growing use of testosterone prescriptions for anti-aging therapy is making anabolics less taboo. Some are asking the question, Why not let older athletes replace what nature denies them as they age? Others just don’t care if athletes use prohibited substances.
The hand-wringing continues. Howard Bryant, a columnist for ESPN The Magazine, wrote in February about the possibility of doping in tennis, an issue brought up around the watercooler about as often as the scourge of Dutch elm disease. Among Bryant’s solutions: “They should give Bud Selig a call.” Sure. Or they could call Carrot Top and have him make fart noises in the phone for half an hour—it’s tough to tell which call would be more productive. While baseball’s drugtesting program isn’t toothless, subsequent events have proven that it’s not enough. Tennis players are better of calling VADA.
None of this will end soon. There will be more Lance Armstrongs, more Biogenesis scandals, more sanctimonious sports columns, more lawsuits, more reckless rumors destroying reputations.
And athletes will continue to dope. They have every incentive to do whatever it takes to win. We live in a culture that values success more than the manner in which that success was obtained. If Wall Street bankers can crash the economy with impunity and walk away with billions, what incentive does anybody have to play by the rules?