So what are we to conclude from the Floyd Landis doping scandal? Quite a few things, if you ask me. I know nothing about testosterone levels (and even less about testosterone ratios), and I have absolutely no idea whether or not Landis is guilty, but that’s not even the biggest part of the story.
As if often the case in sports, the most interesting aspect of this controversy is the public’s perception as shaped by the media’s reaction. Instantly, Landis has been tossed into the clink with all the rest of the sports cheats, only days after he had been hailed as the heir to Sir Lancelot’s throne. (Ironically, he might be the heir in more ways than one, but more on that later.)
When Paul Simon sang wistfully about Joe DiMaggio forty years ago, he was making a statement about a generation’s loss of innocence, but that was nothing compared to what’s happened over the past five to ten years. We’ve arrived at a point where every superior athlete and every superlative performance immediately comes under question. In the last few months things have gotten a bit out of hand as the sports feeling the most heat (baseball, cycling, and track) have taken some serious hits.
Several of the top riders in the world were disqualified from competing in the Tour de France only days before the tour got underway, and just when Landis looked to have saved the sport and its marquee event with his miraculous late-stage comeback and eventual victory, news of his positive test diminished the tour and confirmed what most casual fans already thought about cycling. A bunch of guys on EPO who aren’t named Lance.
Two weeks ago Olympic gold medalist and world’s fastest man Justin Gatlin found himself fielding questions about a positive test (too much testosterone, just like Landis), and his answers weren’t too impressive. His presumed guilt spread to others in the sport, as several sprinters (most notably Sydney’s golden girl, Marion Jones) were banned from European meets based on their association with Gatlin’s coach.
Just this weekend, news broke that Mark McGwire refused to sit down with George Mitchell, baseball’s steroid bulldog, to discuss drug use in the game. If he wouldn’t talk, isn’t that enough to make him guilty?
Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m no longer naïve enough to think that these athletes are all clean. What’s interesting is how quickly they’re determined to be guilty and how shocked everyone seems to be as each new domino falls.
What’s most appalling is the media’s self-righteous attitude towards the athletes in question. Take Barry Bonds, for example. Right now his picture’s at the top of the wanted poster in major league baseball’s post office, but only two years ago his face was being carved on Mt. Rushmore. Even as he was piling up statistics at an unprecedented rate and rewriting every significant offensive record in the 120-year history of the game, no reporter bothered to question what was happening, just as no one said a word five years earlier when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were saving the game with their two-man chase of Roger Maris.
So what happened between then and now to demote Bonds from the brink of immortality to his current status as pariah? How did three surefire Hall of Famers (McGwire, Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro) find themselves tossed aside like letters from an old girlfriend long after the crush has soured? Why does the media and the public turn so quickly on these fallen athletes?
It’s simple -- we turn away because we don’t like what these men and women reveal about ourselves. We can’t bring ourselves to admit that collectively we are the Frankenstein that has created the monster, so instead we grab a torch and join the mob, screaming indignantly all the way.
Really, how could we possibly expect that all these athletes would be clean? I’m not the first to imagine this scenario, but I think it helps to illuminate what’s going on. Let’s say you take twenty of the best race car drivers in the world and set them up for a road rally. The pre-race instructions go like this: “Gentlemen (and Danica), you’re going to race from Los Angeles to San Francisco along Interstate 5. The federal speed limit on this stretch of highway is 75 mph, and even though we won’t monitor your speed and there will be no policemen along the way and all we really want is for you to get there as fast as possible, we hope that you don’t exceed the posted speed limit. And by the way, those racers who get there the fastest will be richly compensated with higher salaries, more product endorsements, and greater fame.”
The shocker would be if any of the drivers drove below the speed limit. And while that seems extreme, we have essentially the same situation with professional sports. We ask our athletes to do whatever it takes to reach the top of their professions, beginning earlier and earlier all the time.
Our entire culture, and I’m not just talking about what goes on between the lines, revolves around the American Dream, an ideal which reminds us that in this land of opportunity, we have a responsibility to do whatever it takes to reach our goals. When this tenet bleeds into the athletic world, it might start to blur a bit, but the spirit remains the same.
There are parents holding five-year-old boys back from kindergarten, solely for the athletic advantage the extra year will give them; children in middle school are guzzling protein drinks with each meal to bulk up for possible football careers; high school pitchers are having Tommy John surgery not just to repair elbows but to strengthen them; and athletes of all ages are allowing laser beams to crisscross their corneas in the name of better than perfect vision.
Athletes have always -- always -- done anything possible to gain any advantage available. As John Perricone correctly reminds us, we know that the greats from the first golden age set many of their records while buzzing on amphetamines, so why should we be surprized that some in this current golden age have had some help as well? We shouldn’t, but somehow we are.
Another puzzling aspect of the Landis Affair is the question of how the public responds. When caught in the steroid trap, people respond in different ways and get different results.
When Jason Giambi’s grand jury testimony was leaked a year and a half ago and his steroid skeletons were revealed to the world, many thought his career would be over, but New York fans swallowed his apology (helped down with a several spoonfuls of home runs), and Giambi appears to be living happily ever after.
Bonds has chosen another route. True to his churlish personality, Barry snarls whenever words like “steroids” or “HGH” or “skull size” come up in an interview, making it clear that he will only answer questions about baseball. The fact that he’s an asshole doesn’t help his cause (nor does the color of his skin), but his failure to address the issue at all clearly makes him appear guilty in some eyes.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Lance Armstrong. Not only does he have a lot of credit built up with the American public (cancer survivor, don’t mess with Texas, etc.), he has been almost militant in his constant assertion of his innocence. When asked recently for a comment on the Landis situation, Lancelot laid out a blueprint that would make any p.r. rep blush with envy: if you’re innocent, proclaim your innocence and do whatever it takes -- go on talk shows, give interviews, find experts, file lawsuits -- to get your message across.
As a result of these two divergent strategies, Armstrong is a victim and Bonds is a villain, even though their cases are surprizingly similar. There are mountains of circumstantial evidence piled against both of them, beginning with their otherworldly accomplishments -- Bonds after forty, Armstrong after cancer. Former lovers have come forward and spoken against both men, as have respected members of their sports, and actual evidence (a bag of empty steroid bottles pulled from the trash and a positive test for Armstrong, a dosing schedule for Bonds) has surfaced as well.
With Bonds, it all makes sense. In the public’s mind, a plus b clearly equals c, and there is no grey area. But because we like Armstrong (what’s not to like about a guy who’s hellbent on curing cancer) and he seems so upset about all of these accusations, we believe what he has to say, whether we’re the ones reporting the news or sitting at home watching it on television.
In the wake of Landis’s disqualification from the Tour de France, ABC News ran a spot on athletes who’ve been suspected of cheating. The reporter shook his head in disdain as he rattled off the list of athletes accused of doping and held their flimsy excuses up for ridicule. The name Armstrong wasn’t mentioned a single time. Well played, Lance.
So young Floyd Landis, with his impeccable moral upbringing and Mennonite family by his side, sits and waits. It’s difficult to understand how only one test in a series of dozens could detect such a huge increase in the testosterone ratio, just as it’s difficult to understand how a world class athlete like Landis could jeopardize his career and reputation by taking something on the day of that fateful stage that couldn’t even help his performance that day.
None of that seems to matter. Even though we’re all complicit in what’s happened, this creation of a sports culture in which anything goes; even though it isn’t really clear why a little testosterone is that bad in the first place; even though Landis might be the one guy out there who wouldn’t look for an advantage that came in a bottle or syringe; even though we’re talking about one lab test (and since when has anyone believed that lab tests are foolproof?); none of that seems to matter.
The sporting conscience has turned the page. One castle has been burned to the ground, but surely there must be more monsters on the loose. Grab a torch.