There will be upcoming posts here soon on the “new” (they hope) Washington Mystics, the Pac-10 coach-hiring “philosophies” (if that’s what you want to call them) and a combo look back/look ahead for Baylor’s women (they of the most-intriguing recruiting class).
All that stuff should have landed on this blog by now, but for an obstruction in thought process. Something that gets in your head and doesn’t want to quietly exit, instead forcing you to write about it, even though you dread that it’s just going to be an exercise in not being able to explain yourself very well.
So here is what’s been taking up entirely too much brain space the past few days: A fellow journalist made an on-line post last week, after news of the Manny Ramirez suspension broke, that it was crazy if people were “bored” with steroids stories or just didn’t care about the issue. He went on to say that his son was getting a good message by seeing stars like Ramirez get caught.
He also added that the “turning point” for him in terms of deciding such athletes should get the figurative guillotine was having seen Marion Jones insist again and again, with such conviction, that she’d never used PEDs. (Performance-enhancing drugs). She’s subsequently had to admit that she did.
Now, it’s not that I disagree in any way that the use of PEDs is horrible. It’s cheating. It’s bad for your body; bad for your soul. I’d guess that’s basically the opinion of most people. There can’t be very many folks out there who are actually big advocates of PEDs.
But there was something about the “feel” of my colleague’s post that seemed to unsettle me a bit. It certainly wasn’t the person who posted it, whom I like and respect. I replied (to the thread he started) that the PEDs mess isn’t just about “good vs. evil” platitudes. Even being 100-percent against PEDs, I feel it’s more complicated than that.
It all just keeps rattling around in my head, so here goes:
1. There’s a notion that if sports fans are tired of/bored by the subject of steroids, they are just wrong. To me, that tends to be a type of mistake we journalists make a lot. (Myself included). We build up a lot of indignation about wrong-doing, and we expect our audience is going to be just as ticked off as we are.
But the reality is that while some readers/viewers might get as worked up about it as we do, some may not at all. In regard to PEDs, those folks who downplay/tune out the issue are not thinking, “We are pro-drug! We like cheaters!” They’re thinking, “Look, I can go to ‘the real news’ every day and see catastrophes. I want sports to be fun.”
This isn’t just an issue with PEDs. It’s the same for NCAA violations or academic issues or arrests or internal squabbles or contract fights or anything that’s not positive. Journalists often use the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger.” Certainly, people should not blame the deliverers of bad news as if they made those things happen. But by the same token, there’s plenty of negative responses that could be shown toward the messenger that fall well short of shooting. Such as disliking, doubting or willfully ignoring. We in the media just have to accept that.
A lot of sports fans wish the PEDs issue would go away so they can enjoy sports without the trepidation of waiting for the next ‘roids rug to be pulled out from under them. They don’t want to watch yet another soiled “hero” deny, and then make ridiculous excuses and then (often tearfully) claim, “If only I’d paid more attention and not trusted the wrong people …”
We in the media shouldn’t be contemptuous of fans if they express frustration with the whole issue in such as way as to suggest they “don’t care.” It’s just their way to deal with something everybody is sick of dealing with.
2. I have a hard time painting everyone who uses PEDs as simply a “horrible person.” Again, I’m not trying to defend the practice of using PEDs in the slightest. But to suggest this is only about those individuals’ wrong choices (although it is about that, of course) ignores the culture of athletics to push one’s body to the limits, to look for competitive edges and that to win is everything. Add in the element of financial gain – sometimes fantastical gain – and you have a temptation that many, many people have found irresistible.
I just don’t believe every one of those people who have given into that temptation can be written off as a total moral failure. Yes, they failed. Absolutely. But to just pronounce PEDs use as something only “bad people” do is to ignore ways in which we as coaches, competitors, fans and journalists can perhaps work toward prevention.
When journalists say of an athlete who’s been caught, “How could they have done this?” … it’s kind of a pointless rhetorical question. We know there are powerful reasons. Thus, powerful consequences – long suspensions, big fines, damage to reputation, etc. _ are ways of trying to curtail the use of PEDs. But in a sport like Major League Baseball, which is so far behind other organizations in confronting the problem, there’s so much blame to spread, so many people in power who not only turned a blind eye to PEDs use but richly rewarded obvious users, that to single out players alone does not seem to realistically address how MLB got into this train wreck.
Nor should we totally freak out when big names like Ramirez get busted. This is what finally happens when you get serious about trying to combat PEDs use: You expose people who have to be punished. Ask track and field followers how long, arduous and heart-breaking a process it is to first accept the need to uncover your sport’s dirty laundry, then to actually attempt to do it. Especially since track is well ahead of baseball in trying. MLB isn’t going to magically “clean up” in a couple of years. It’s going to take more time and more exposures.
It would be great if we lived in a world where simply knowing something was wrong stopped everyone from doing it. Where people were motivated more by being honest and genuine than by anything else. But we don’t. Thus, I wonder if professional athletics should actually give financial bonuses to athletes with each test they take and prove clean, rather than just punish users who are caught.
I know how repellent that may sound. We should “reward” people for just doing what’s right? There should be a bonus for not cheating? But it’s a real-life answer to a problem that’s complicated.
3. Mentions of Marion Jones set off so many thought waves for me. After years of denials, Jones was finally forced to acknowledge she used PEDs and had lied about it repeatedly. She had to forfeit all results/prize money prior to September 2000. She cost her fellow U.S. relay-team athletes their medals, too. Last year, she served six months in prison for perjury involving her use of PEDs and her participation in a check-cashing crime.
Jones went on “Oprah” last October, where she said the lies started when investigators showed her a vial of the now-infamous substance “the clear” and asked her if she’d ever used it. She said she recognized it then as something she had previously believed to be a supplement. Then, supposedly realizing for the first time that she’d taken a steroid, Jones panicked and said she’d never used it.
Jones appears to have drawn a new battle line with the truth by portraying herself as someone who made decisions mostly because she was naive and allowed the wrong people into her life, that she “didn’t question their motives” enough. But who had any greater motivation for Jones to be successful than Jones herself?
A lot of journalists are immediately on “boil” at the mere mention of Jones’ name, and they quickly boil over with every word she says about her use of PEDs. Which I can understand, because it still sounds like a load of malarkey.
But the thing is, I feel remorse for Jones. Many of my colleagues in journalism likely would want to throttle me to near-death for saying this. They’d point out all the obvious truths: that Jones used illegal PEDs, she damaged track and field, she cost her relay teammates their medals, she fibbed to everyone for so long, etc. How many press conferences did we all sit through hearing Jones’ denials?
Of course I know all this. But I also can remember Jones as an 18-year-old basketball point guard for North Carolina in its national-championship season in 1994. Jones had that great, beautiful smile, the outward confidence (which masked a lot of inner self-doubt), the breathtaking athletic ability. She was similar to a Deion Sanders or a Bo Jackson – the type of athlete who could have participated at a high level in any number of sports.
Whatever Jones lacked back then in specific basketball skills, she made up for with her speed, quickness, athleticism, competitiveness and on-court smarts. I remember talking to her after the 1994 ACC tournament in Rock Hill, S.C., and wondering if we were watching the young woman who was on her way to being the transcendent female athlete of her generation.
Another time I talked with Jones was at the 1994 Olympic festival in St. Louis. That was when there was still debate over how she could continue to balance track and basketball. She was playing hoops at the festival, and I asked if she thought she’d have to choose to give up one or the other during her college career.
Her answer stays with me all these years later: “When I do make a decision, you’ll know it was the best thing for Marion.”
There’s not a lot that causes journalists to mentally roll their eyes more than when athletes refer to themselves in the third person like that, especially when it’s an 18-year-old doing it. But I didn’t actually feel that way then. What I thought was that the confidence Jones displayed was more or less a cover for a kid who was trying to be something she wasn’t entirely sure how to be.
Her hoops coach at UNC, Sylvia Hatchell, once told me she thought Jones lost touch with those who may have cared about her the most while she was in college. Hatchell didn’t say this with any kind of malice or even criticism. She just seemed sad about it.
I find that I can’t get angry at Marion Jones, either. Instead I feel regret that she made the choices she did, which robbed women’s sports of a legend. And it seems even more depressing that she may never just take full responsibility for it, almost as doing that would be too much for her to bear.
I do get angry at times when it seems like some athletes who did similar things to what Jones did – especially those in the NFL – get relatively slight punishments and observers seem eager to forgive. But that doesn’t really change what Jones did wrong, nor does it mean that the relative wrist-slaps for others is the correct way to go.
So where do I end up with all of this? I don’t know. I want to believe a c0mpassionate and realistic effort at prevention is even more effective in the war against PEDs than withering condemnation. Maybe I’m completely wrong.
I do understand why so many sports fans just wish we could stop thinking about it.