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Daring to Ask the PED Question

If everyone is secretly suspicious of so many athletic achievements in the 21st century, why aren't we talking about it?

I made a deal with myself a long time ago: My column needed to capture the things I discuss with my friends. Last week, I realized that wasn’t totally happening anymore. Something of a disconnect had emerged between my private conversations and the things I wrote for Grantland/ESPN. In essence, I had turned into two people. There’s Sports Fan Me, and there’s ESPN Me.

Sports Fan Me is candid, jaded, suspicious of everyone. Sports Fan Me repeatedly gets involved in arguments and e-mail chains centered on the question, “Do you think he’s cheating?” Sports Fan Me has Googled athletes’ heads and jawlines, studied their sizes, then mailed before/after pictures to friends with the subject heading, “CHECK THIS OUT.” Sports Fan Me has learned to trust his inner shit detector, to swiftly question any accomplishment that seems extraordinary or superhuman. Sports Fan Me hates that he feels this way, but he does, and there’s just no way around it.

ESPN Me sticks his head in the sand and doesn’t say anything.

ESPN Me occasionally pushes narratives that he doesn’t totally believe in.

ESPN Me didn’t have the balls to run two e-mails that you’re about to read. They nearly landed in each of my last four mailbags. Each time, I pulled both e-mails (and my responses) from those columns at the last minute.

E-mail no. 1 (from David B. in Concord, North Carolina): “Why isn’t anyone questioning Ray Lewis’s miraculous recovery from a torn triceps muscle? At age 37, not only did he recover in 10 weeks from an injury that usually takes 6 months minimum for recovery, but, upon returning, he played at a higher level than before he was injured. Are sports ‘journalists’ incapable of learning from their own mistakes (we JUST HAD both the Baseball HOF vote and Lance admitting to steroid use), or is the sport just bigger than the truth?”

E-mail no. 2 (from Ben Miller in Fort Worth, Texas): “Instead of Beyonce, should we change the Super Bowl halftime show to just Adrian Peterson pissing in a cup at midfield? You just talked about how dumb we all look in hindsight when these super human baseball stars were shattering age-old records. Peterson nearly broke a 28 year old record in one of the most physically-demanding positions in sports less than 12 months after tearing his ACL & MCL!!! Respect the hell out of the guy and love his extreme work ethic, but think about McGwire’s 70. Now think about it happening less than 12 months after tearing a pec. We probably call BS even back then at that point. You may want to take a cold shower and then mention it in a column just in case.”

Sports Fan Me spent most of November and December debating the Lewis/Peterson topics with friends and coworkers, so Sports Fan Me wanted to run those e-mails. ESPN Me overruled him, believing it was unfair to speculate without any real proof … even though ongoing speculation has become as big a part of sports fandom as purchasing tickets or buying a replica jersey. That’s the disconnect.

Before those Miami New Times/Sports Illustrated bombshells dropped this week and we started joking about deer-antler spray, I would have wagered anything that God didn’t miraculously heal Ray Lewis’s torn tricep. I never actually wrote this. Alluded to it, danced around it, joked about it … just never actually came out and wrote it. I stayed away from Peterson jokes for a different reason: His historic comeback (and historically great season) seemed conceivable. All Day might be a freak of nature, and if you take Dr. James Andrews at his word, the inside of Peterson’s knee resembled a newborn baby’s knee even after six NFL seasons. Watching Peterson regain his old form wasn’t any more eye-opening than, say, Peyton Manning regaining his old form at age 36 after four neck surgeries.

Then again, I like Adrian Peterson. I thought watching him carry footballs was just about the most exciting thing that happened last year. I liked living in something of a sports-movie fantasy world in which our hero gets maimed, defies the odds, and returns better than ever (and sooner than we ever imagined). I wanted to believe in the notion that someone could be noticeably better at playing running back than anyone else. I loved the thought of telling my grandkids someday, “Yes, I was there for Adrian Peterson.”

Will I look back at Peterson’s remarkable season someday and say, “God, how did we NOT know? How stupid were we?” I say no.

But I don’t know for sure. And that’s the problem. There is no such thing as “the benefit of the doubt” anymore. Not in sports. Too many people took advantage. All the benefits are gone.

A few weeks ago, we finished a Baseball Hall of Fame voting process in which nobody was selected. Not a single guy. Keep in mind, the following stars were eligible: one of the greatest outfielders ever, one of the greatest starting pitchers ever, two of the most imposing sluggers ever, one of the greatest offensive first basemen ever, the single greatest offensive catcher ever, a member of the 500–home run club, and someone who reached base more than anyone in history except for 17 players. None of them made it to Cooperstown. Five were shunned because we were getting back at them — they cheated, they burned us, they let us down. Two were bypassed because of circumstantial evidence — we were pretty sure they cheated, and since they never defended themselves that passionately, they were out. The last guy missed out because of our anger toward the other seven guys, and because a few-dozen holier-than-thou baseball writers keep stubbornly protecting a fantasy world that no longer exists.

Really, those snubs were driven by our residual guilt about what we didn’t do during baseball’s steroid boom. We ignored their swollen noggins and rippling biceps. We weren’t fazed by seemingly inexplicable surges in production, or even something as fundamentally perplexing as a 37-year-old doubles hitter suddenly hitting 50-plus homers. We didn’t just look the other way; we threw heavy burlap bags over our heads and taped our eyeballs shut. And because we never stepped up, those enterprising dickheads bastardized baseball and ruined one of its most sacred qualities: the wholly unique way that eight generations of players relate to one another through statistics and records. Here, look.

That list is dead. It means nothing. McGwire’s generation made it fundamentally impossible to put power numbers into context for the rest of eternity, basically. And they did more damage than that. This past Christmas Eve, my son and daughter made Santa cookies, wrote him a letter, even left four carrots for his reindeer. As we were putting them to bed, I remember thinking, Man, I wish they could always stay like this. And by “this,” I really meant, I wish they could always just blindly believe in things being true despite mounting evidence against them. For whatever reason, that made me think of Lance Armstrong. Was there even a difference? Our kids have Santa; we have Lance and Barry and A-Rod and everyone else.

Steroids fans

When Lance clinched the ESPY for “Most Pompous and Unapologetic Asshole” on Oprah’s show a few weeks ago, everyone ripped him to shreds, because that’s the pattern for us. The whole “innocent until proven guilty” mind-set will always be our default … until you burn us. If you burn us? Then, and only then, do we flip out. Nixon lied about Watergate; we never forgave him. Clinton lied about Lewinsky; we didn’t forgive him for years and years. Countless baseball stars lied about cheating; we barricaded them from the Hall of Fame. Lance lied about absolutely everything; we turned him from a do-good hero into a defensive pariah. We hate people who lie to our faces.

But when you keep your head down and keep cheating? That’s a little tougher. We’re culpable in this respect: We have a tendency to look the other way as long as those great games and great moments keep coming. And it’s not just with performance enhancers.

We look the other way when college basketball coaches pretend to care about academics as they’re riding one-and-done players to titles, or when those same coaches gush about “the bond between me and those kids” and then defecate on it by jumping to another school for a little more money.

We look the other way when hardcore evidence emerges that the NCAA is just as corrupt and dishonest as some of the shadier coaches it’s policing.

We look the other way when FIFA accepts bribes for World Cup bids, or when it turns out the NFL never really cared about player safety until there was a massive concussion lawsuit coming.

We look the other way when baseball teams win World Series even though they probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs without significant help from steroids cheats.

We look the other way when NFL players are allowed to create any excuse they want for a four-game drug suspension (usually Adderall), or when David Stern tells a reporter that he doesn’t see how PEDs would help NBA players (yeah, right).

We look the other way as the NBA keeps its own little Santa Claus streak going: Of all the running-and-jumping sports that feature world-class athletes competing at the highest level, only the NBA hasn’t had a single star get nailed for performance enhancers … you know, because there’s no way hundreds of overcompetitive stars with massive egos would ever cheat to gain an edge with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

We look the other way when the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL players associations keep blocking blood testing in their respective sports (MLB finally started blood testing for the 2013 season), even though doctors keep telling us, “Hey, if we can have regular blood samples, it’s a thousand times easier to catch cheaters.”

My favorite recent look-the-other-way example: Juan Manuel Marquez couldn’t knock down Manny Pacquiao for 36 solid rounds over three of their fights. Before their third fight, the 39-year-old Marquez aligned himself with a disgraced strength-and-conditioning coach named Angel Heredia (Google his name and PEDs; it’s a fun 10 minutes), arrived in Vegas so ripped that he weighed in four pounds under the 147-pound limit, knocked Pacquiao down early with a vicious power punch, then coldcocked him a few rounds later with one of the single greatest knockout punches ever thrown. What did we do? We bought the fight, gathered in our living rooms. We oohed and aahed, tweeted our disbelief and forwarded the YouTube clip around. And when Marquez passed the bogus post-fight drug test — for the record, Keith Richards in 1978 after a night at Studio 54 could pass one of boxing’s drug tests — everyone let the moment go.

Know this: Every boxing fan I know believes that Marquez enhanced his chances that night. But that’s the thing: Our private conversations have nothing in common with public conversations, not just in sports, but with everything. If you’re a public figure who says something offensive, we’re going to rake you over the coals until you apologize … but if you make that same offensive comment under the protection of anonymity, whether it’s on YouTube’s comment section, Reddit, a message board or whatever, that’s totally acceptable. What are we? Where are we? Do we even know anymore? In Chuck Klosterman’s superb Grantland piece about Royce White this week, the embattled Rocket made a fascinating point about social media:

As much as we want to think that these are just people behind computer screens, those people are living next door to you. They are people behind computer screens in schools. In hospitals. Working in Washington, D.C. These are real people. How many times does this stuff have to happen before we admit something really disturbing is going on here? I think one person tweeting “Fuck you, go kill yourself” is disturbing. But when you get into the hundreds of those tweets? The thousands of those tweets? I see a lot of people out there with really volatile mental disorders that are not getting help. Because I go to their own Twitter pages, and I can see they’re not just sending those messages to me. They’re sending them to a bunch of people.

And that’s where it gets messy. Anyone with a public forum should feel a certain responsibility to the greater good, whether you have a blog, a column, a podcast, a radio show or a steady TV gig. Of the myriad reasons why people have been bitching against ESPN lately, some are overblown or agenda-ridden, some are semi-legitimate, and some are undeniably legitimate. A good example: Rob Parker, who recklessly represented the alleged feelings of a segment of the African American community toward Robert Griffin III. Since he failed to do so thoughtfully or accurately, the ensuing backlash was speedy and deserved. He squandered that First Take pulpit, and when ESPN fired him, nobody was surprised. But what if that same show contained an exchange like this?

Talking Head No. 1: “Look, we’ve watched so many athletes let us down by cheating these past two decades, it’s become impossible for me to digest Peterson’s comeback or Lewis’s comeback without wondering if they bent the rules.”

Talking Head No.2: “You’re saying they don’t pass the smell test for you?”

Talking Head No. 1: “Exactly. I’m saying that athlete PED profiling has become part of following sports. And it’s something we should be allowed to talk about on this show.”

Talking Head No. 2 [suddenly scared]: “What do you mean?”

Talking Head No. 1: “I mean, we should debate whether guys are cheating in the same way we should debate whether they should be traded, or whether they’re playing well enough, or whatever. You and I just talked in the green room about Lewis and whether he was cheating, remember?”

Talking Head No. 2 [shitting a brick]: “I thought we were off the record.”

Talking Head No. 1: “No, screw that — let’s talk about this. Is it fair to someone like Peterson to bring it up? I say yes. I say he’s a professional athlete, living in a world in which dozens and dozens of guys either cheat and get caught or cheat and don’t get caught, playing a sport with lax drug-testing rules. THAT’S PART OF SPORTS NOW! We pretend it isn’t, but it is. What are we hiding from? Who are we protecting? What’s the difference between wondering if Peterson had help with his comeback and wondering if he’s going to break Dickerson’s record? Either way, we’re just speculating, right? Well, that’s what we do! That’s the whole point of this show! WE SPECULATE ON STUFF!!!!!!!”

Now, how would you have felt had you watched that exchange unfold on TV?

Your first thought: This is great TV.

Your second thought: That guy’s getting fired. And fast.

Your third thought: This YouTube clip will have 100 million page views in three days.

Your fourth thought (about 10 minutes later): You know, that guy made some good points.

PED profiling.

Think about that phrase again. Hasn’t it become an essential part of following sports? Why won’t we admit it? When you add up the names of everyone who either (a) definitely cheated or (b) almost definitely cheated, it’s a “Who’s Who” of influential athletes. You could cram them into their own Hall of Fame. Because of that, there’s been residual damage … leading to PED profiling … leading to my aforementioned disconnect. When any athlete recovers from any injury well ahead of the expected time, deep down, we wonder. When any athlete defies the aging process in a seemingly supernatural way, deep down, we’re suspicious. When any superstar reaches a level that doesn’t seem athletically realistic, deep down, we’re hoping he didn’t cheat to get there.

I had planned on writing about PED profiling in my deleted mailbag answer about Peterson, if only because it’s so unfair that certain athletes (say, Marquez and A-Rod) make it impossible for something like Peterson’s absolutely incredible comeback to happen without people wondering, “Hmmmmmmmm.” We’ve been burned too many times by the words “absolutely incredible.” Now we’re here. So we wondered. And kept wondering. I probably received 700 “Do you think Peterson is doing this legitimately?” e-mails in November and December. Some were funny, some were thoughtful, some were crazy. All of them made me think.

Did I Google photos of Peterson’s Oklahoma head and compare them to his Minnesota head? I did. And felt like a loser the entire time. Until I mentioned it to a buddy.

“Oh, I’ve done that,” he said. “Everyone does that. That should just be a website. Before/after photos of athlete heads. They should all be in one place.”

And I found myself nodding. That’s a great idea for a website. He’s right.

Does that make me a bad person? Am I damaged? You tell me. At the Grantland office, it’s been something of a running joke: I call it my “Pee In The Cup” list. I never wrote about that list because ESPN Me overruled Sports Fan Me (smartly, in this case). Just know that it doesn’t take much to get added to the list. Some of my favorite ways include …

• Skip the Olympics (which has much stricter drug testing) in your prime for any dubious reason and you’re on the list.

• Enjoy your best season in years in your late 30s, four or five years after your last “best season,” and you’re on the list.

• If you’re a skinny dude who miraculously managed to add 20 pounds of muscle to your scarecrow frame, you’re on the list.

• If you chopped down the recovery time of a debilitating injury to something that just didn’t seem possible a year ago, you’re on the list.

• If you were really good and really ripped at a really young age, and now your body is breaking down much sooner than it should be breaking down, you’re on the list.

• If you’re exhibiting a level of superhuman endurance that has little correlation to the endurance of any of your competitors, you’re on the list.

You’re on the list for reasons that, sometimes, aren’t even your fault. You’re on the list because of mistakes your peers made, because the media foolishly trained itself to look the other way, because we learned the hard way that “absolutely incredible” usually comes with a catch. You’re on the list because your players union negotiated ironclad drug-testing rules, ostensibly to protect your rights, but really to protect your right to cheat without being judged. You’re on the list because our President claims to be a big sports fan but refuses to get involved, and apparently would rather see every sport go to hell over risking political capital and doing something about it. You’re on the list because we don’t have blood testing in your sport yet, or biological passports, or anything else that would allow us to know if you were competing fairly or unfairly. You’re on the list because it’s 2013 and we still have our heads stuck in the sand.

The following anecdote is 100 percent true …

NBA players get tested up to four times during the course of a season. The fourth time can happen at any point from October to June, but once it happens, that’s it. So if your fourth test occurs after your 71st game, you’re clear the rest of the way. It’s a running joke within NBA circles, something of a get-out-of-jail-free card: Once you pee in that fourth cup, you’re good to go. Put whatever you want into your body. Feel like smoking enough weed to make Harold and Kumar blush? Knock yourself out. Feel like replacing your blood with cleaner blood so you have more endurance for the playoffs? Knock yourself out. Feel like starting a testosterone cycle because you might have to play 25 grueling playoff games over the next 10 weeks? Knock yourself out. Remember how competitive these guys are. What would they do for an edge? How far would they go? And why are we giving them the choice?

The following anecdote is also 100 percent true …

Not everyone tests for elevated testosterone. For the leagues or sports that do, they must account for people with naturally elevated levels of testosterone. That threshold is higher than you think because they’re accounting for biological outliers — some athletes might naturally have twice as much testosterone as the average person. All right, so let’s say you’re an NFL player that has to test three times higher than the “average” threshold before getting flagged. Conceivably, you could rely on a controlled amount of HGH, something that bumps you up … just not TOO high. Maybe you jack up your testosterone levels a little under three times higher than they should be. Guess what? That’s still legal! Do they have patches that can briefly bump up your levels without prolonged traces? Yes, they do! Did one famous athlete (not an NFL player) use that patch on his testicles to bump his levels close to that threshold, fall asleep, keep his patch on too long and subsequently fail his next test? Yes, he did! It’s amazing this doesn’t happen more often.

The following anecdote is also 100 percent true …

When Bertrand Berry and Ty Warren suffered a complete tear of their triceps, it took them six months to recover. When Arizona left tackle Levi Brown suffered a complete tear of his triceps in August 2012, the Cardinals immediately put him on their season-ending injured list. When Ray Lewis suffered a complete tear of his triceps in mid-October, we thought he was finished for the season … only he returned to action a little more than two months later. During the third month of his “recovery,” he made 17 tackles in a double-overtime playoff game in Denver. In 13-degree weather. At age 37.

So when Lewis’s name landed in this week’s PED scandal, nobody tumbled over in shock. We wasted the rest of Super Bowl week talking about him, wondering whether he cheated, watching his denial for signs that he was lying, Googling “deer antler spray” and talking about everything other than the game. Eventually, the moment will pass, like it always does. Nothing will change. Sadly, the collective irresponsibility of some sports media members — call it “cornballbrotheritis” — ruined any rational media member’s chances to question the current environment. You don’t trust our ability to handle such a loaded subject, nor should you. We’ve ruined your trust too many times.

I just know that athletes shouldn’t be able to have it both ways. Don’t hide behind your players unions and allow your player reps to fight against better drug testing, then flip out if Jalen Rose and I decide to have an impromptu “Who’s On Your ‘I Need To See You Pee In A Cup’ Team This Year?” podcast. Again, we have the technology now. We can protect clean players from competing against dirty ones. Why aren’t we using it? Henry Abbott’s exhaustive piece on the NBA and PEDs made a fantastic point: Why did FIFA make biological passports (the single best way to catch cheaters right now) mandatory for the 2014 World Cup, but the NBA can’t even convince its players to allow blood testing?

Really? You’re that fearful of what we’d find in your blood, NBA players? If you’re not fearful, why allow your representatives to make it seem like you’re that fearful? How can you expect me NOT to wonder if you’re cheating? Especially when so many other world-class athletes are cheating? Are you really expecting me to believe that Don MacLean, Matt Geiger, Soumaila Samake, Lindsey Hunter, Darius Miles, Rashard Lewis and O.J. Mayo — seven guys with a combined two All-Star appearances — were the only NBA players who ever used banned performance enhancers?

Let’s see what’s in everyone’s body, once and for all. I think you’d be surprised. You’d wonder if some were glorified junkies. You’d be confused about why we placed such a belated priority on concussion awareness while continuing to ignore HGH and steroids and painkillers. Why wasn’t the recent story about the NFL’s Toradol waiver a bigger deal? What’s the difference between taking HGH and Toradol, anyway? What does the word “performance enhancer” really mean? It’s OK to borrow a dead person’s ligament to regain your 95-mph fastball, but it’s not OK to boost your testosterone for those same results? It’s OK to travel to Germany to inject stem cells into your damaged knee to stimulate recovery and regeneration, but it’s not OK to replace your blood with better blood to increase your stamina?

How did we decide what’s right and wrong? Did we just arbitrarily make up a bunch of rules with no correlation to one another? Why won’t our favorite athletes help us out by pushing for more accountability within their sports? The goal should be simple: total transparency. Every American professional league should have the best possible testing. Period. And if athletes don’t think it’s fair … well, I don’t think it’s fair that some of them cheat. So there.

Sports With Alternatives to Steroids

I believe that Ray Lewis cheated. I believe that to be true based on circumstantial evidence, his age, his overcompetitiveness, the history of that specific injury, and the fact that his “recovery” made my shit detector start vibrating like a chainsaw.

I believe in my right to write the previous paragraph because athletes pushed us to this point. We need better drug testing. We need blood testing. We need biological passports. We need that stuff now. Not in three years. Not in two years. Now. I don’t even know what I am watching anymore.

I believe we need to fix this disconnect between our private conversations and our public ones. Cheating in professional sports is an epidemic. Wondering about the reasons behind a dramatically improved performance, or a dramatically fast recovery time, shouldn’t be considered off-limits for media members. We shouldn’t feel like scumbags bringing this stuff up. It’s part of sports.

I believe that, if I played sports for a living, I would steer clear of performance enhancers no matter how many millions were at stake, no matter how famous they might make me, no matter how many titles I might win. I like to believe that, anyway. The truth is … I don’t really know what I would do. And neither do you.

I believe Adrian Peterson came back naturally. I don’t need to see All Day pee in a cup at the Super Bowl. Sports Fan Me and ESPN Me agree on this one. Of course, if you gave us a halftime choice between Beyoncé performing or Ray Lewis peeing in a cup, we’re going with the peeing. Welcome to sports in the 21st century.

Filed Under: Drugs, General topics, Series, Sports, The Sports Guy

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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