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Let's not get complacent about PEDs in sports

It's probably just my cynical nature but, when it comes to steroids and performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports, I generally just assume the worst. Some of it probably stems from the fact that one of my earliest sports memories is watching Ben Johnson win the 100 meters in the 1988 Olympics, only to have his medal stripped from him for testing positive for steroids.

Then years later, when a reporter casually mentioned that he had seen a bottle of androstenedione, an anabolic steroid, in Mark McGwire's locker in the late 1990s, I remember thinking, “Oh, that's how he did it,” and I moved on.

As a San Francisco Giants fan, when Barry Bonds started putting together some of the most statistically incredible seasons in the history of the sport, culminating with his 73 home run outburst in 2001 while also drawing 177 walks, all at the age of 37, I was amazed but, at the same time, knew what I was seeing was an anomaly.

I had my moments of trying to rationalize it. I told myself that other players, including pitchers, were using the same drugs, the pitching talent pool was diluted, the balls were juiced. How much could the drugs really be helping him anyway? But, deep down, I knew the truth.

With more accusations and revelations cropping up almost daily about athletes in a wide variety of sports using an illegal advantage, I've found myself simply getting numb.

I don't think there's a single professional athlete who I would say with 100 percent assurance hasn't taken an illegal substance at some point in his or her career.

I think that's where a lot of sports fans are sitting currently. Entire sports like cycling and track and field have been tainted to the extent that it's difficult to believe that anyone could compete at a championship level without illegal substances.

It's easy to become disenfranchised. For one, it's still difficult to catch those who are cheating. The people who figure out ways to beat drug tests are still light years ahead of those who are developing the tests. Athletes who are using often pass dozens, if not hundreds, of tests before finally getting caught.

In the case of Lance Armstrong, scores of people alleged that he was using illegal substances and blood doping and the entire governing body of the sport spent more than a decade trying to bust him before he eventually unraveled.

Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, it can be incredibly difficult to actually hit a player with any real form of punishment. Players like Bonds and Roger Clemens have been tarnished in the public eye but likely won't face any real consequences even though they both may have even committed perjury in the course of their defense.

Also, it still doesn't seem like the punishments are enough motivation to stop using PEDs or to not ever take them in the first place.

In the recent case of Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, he won an MVP while on illegal substances, got caught and then was “exonerated” by the flimsiest of technicalities before eventually getting caught again when his name was on a list of clients at the Biogenesis lab in Florida.

His punishment? Suspension for the final 60+ games of a meaningless Brewers season. It seems like his gambit was worth it. His tainted numbers translated to an MVP, which has yet to be stripped from him and a massive contract. Perhaps more interestingly, what's his motivation to stop using?

One choice is to quit using the drugs, which would likely result in at least a temporary dip in his statistics and his confidence, play out the string of his career as a tarnished athlete and have his body break down in his late 30s as is the pattern for regular athletes.

The other option is to keep using. He has already proven that he can pass drug tests. So why not continue to put up monster numbers, cash in another big contract and potentially extend his career into his early 40s? And if he gets busted again? He's still made an insane amount of money and his reputation was already sullied to begin with.

This is to say nothing of the athletes who are on the fringe of making it big in their respective sport. Is the risk of suspension worth a significantly better shot at cashing in even just one big contract? In many cases, particularly for athletes who come from a low-income background, it's an easy choice to make.

So, in the face of drug allegations in virtually every major sport, there is a growing contingent of fans who, frankly, just don't care anymore. With more and more frequency, I hear the argument that PEDs should just be made legal in professional sports.

Honestly, I can understand the argument. The athletes are grown men and women who, presumably understand the potential consequences, and, as a culture that has always put feats of strength and speed on a pedestal, aren't sports at their most entertaining when we see the human body do things that have never been accomplished before?

I understood that argument, that is until the news broke that the same Biogenesis lab that supplied drugs to dozens of professional athletes also allegedly did the same thing with high schoolers.

I'm not naïve enough to think that the steroids epidemic stops at the professional or even the collegiate level. In fact, I'm sure that in my 10 years of covering high school sports, I've watched players who have used some form of PEDs.

But we should still be outraged. When cheating to gain an edge becomes such a norm at the professional level, it's easy to excuse a teenager for thinking that it's simply part of the game.

In many ways, high school athletes have more pressure on them to succeed athletically than at any other level. Faring well in high school can lead to a scholarship at a prestigious college and increase one's chance at succeeding professionally if that is the athlete's ultimate goal.

And often, a vulnerable teenager receives less than sound advice from a parent who has similar, if not greater, aspirations for his or her child.

While it's easy to simply roll our eyes at the latest steroids scandal and pass our athletes off as simply entertainers, it's a mistake.

When fame and fortune are on the line, cheating will always exist in one form or another. But when that cheating becomes so commonplace among our kids' idols that the line between right and wrong is blurred or even erased entirely all while jeopardizing the safety and health of children, a stand needs to be taken.

I'm not sure what the eventual solution is. It's an incredibly difficult era for the professional and amateur athlete. But I know that the need for strong morals and character at the youth and high school levels of coaching has perhaps never been greater.




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