Rambling about sports and drugs

So how about them drugs? If you are a fan of drugs, and drug stories, you must be absolutely elated these days. Baseball is suspending the likes of Bartolo Colon and Melky Cabrera. Football is dealing with guys like Joe Haden, in an example that is close to home. And now the most high-profile cyclist in recorded human history is buckling under the weight of another fight over doping and drug allegations. I wanted to talk about this issue when the Joe Haden allegations popped up, but it felt too much like a homer take to attack the NFL’s rules.

As we sit here today with the Browns’ cornerback youth movement with Skrine and Wade looking at least capable, I’m feeling a bit more confident in talking about Joe Haden without coming off like some fan that is fighting scared to keep Haden on the field. While avoiding suspension would be nice, a four-game suspension for Haden isn’t the end of the world for Browns fans this season, it doesn’t appear. And with the recent headlines noted above, there is even more context for conversation.

I understand why drug rules exist. It isn’t about punishing fans or even the offenders as much as it is about protecting results and clean competitors. If one guy is juicing up to hit homers, presumably those inflated results will lead to that guy unfairly stealing contract dollars from a clean guy. In addition, the results that guy produces on the field gives unfair advantage for his team over a team that doesn’t have any users. All this is obvious. That’s what doesn’t jive with Joe Haden allegedly getting popped for Adderall in the off-season.

As I say frequently, the easiest part of my day is going from start to finish without being arrested. Similarly, the easiest part of Joe Haden’s off-season should be not getting popped for any illegal substances. There are millions of reasons why this should be the case. Whatever punishment Joe Haden deserves and ultimately gets are on him for his actions. I won’t even argue this point, but looking critically at the rules isn’t mutually exclusive from following them.

It stands to reason that an off-season test finding a player using Adderall might belong in a substance abuse program more than a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. That’s not to turn Joe Haden into a victim, but let’s not also pretend like recreational use of prescription drugs isn’t a real thing that’s worthy of discussion and sometimes rehabilitation. I don’t know the specifics of Joe Haden’s case, but more generically speaking, if someone does have a substance abuse problem, you don’t help them get over it through punishment. This isn’t to say that people should never be punished for, just that if you had to choose in an either / or scenario, treatment would almost always be preferred.

Again, I must re-iterate, this is not a claim that Joe Haden shouldn’t serve a suspension. The rules are the way they are and Haden should have been aware. This does not absolve him should he be found in violation and ultimately suspended. Still, it’s important to look at the rules and think about changing them if they aren’t working or are producing unforeseen and unnecessary results.

So how does any of this reconcile with the Tour de France and Lance Armstrong? That’s a different playing field with a whole host of different problems. There’s an entire Wikipedia article on doping at the Tour de France. Even if you think Lance Armstrong is 100% clean, of the 141 top finishers listed in the article from 1998 to 2011, there are 55 who have a history of some form with doping allegations. What I’m saying is if you take the top ten finishers from each year from 2011 to 1998, 40% of them have a history of being sanctioned, disqualified or having admitted to cheating somewhere along the lines. If you think Lance Armstrong is a cheater, then that number jumps to 45% when you add in his eight appearances in the top ten.

That, my friends is a sport that doesn’t exist without blood doping. The entire sport is susceptible to cheating to a level that the sport seemingly can’t exist without it. It also makes things very difficult for people who want to be fans of the sport or fans of Lance Armstrong. In a sport like cycling, it seems almost unreasonable to assume that any of the guys are clean. How you reconcile it all is up to you, but I have a tough time judging Lance Armstrong harshly.

It wouldn’t surprise me if he gained an unfair advantage along the way, but the reason that I can’t judge him harshly is because it doesn’t seem “unfair” with the sport and competitors he’s competing against. As Michael David Smith put it today, “I’m as likely to believe someone won the Tour de France without PEDs as I am to believe someone could win it on foot.”

So does that make me a proponent of drugs? Should I hang a steroid banner in my house instead of one for the various Cleveland teams?

In two very different cases, I managed to justify use of drugs, support athletes and fight some of the rules. Still, I don’t know. I guess I just draw my lines in a strange way.

For one, I get the appeal of using performance enhancers. I use a pre-workout supplement that I think would be banned on the Tour de France. I bought it at GNC and have also purchased it through the mail from Is it bad for me? It is a stimulant, so I guess it could be, but my bet is that using something that gets my butt out the door for runs or into the pool for swims is worth the risk compared to what I used to be like without it.2

I’ve managed to justify using it and I don’t even have glory and huge paychecks on the line. From that perspective I kind of get it in cycling, especially with the suspected usage rates among competitors. It also hits the Joe Haden example. If Haden truly did use Adderall, we’re talking about a prescription drug that could give you a boost on gameday. Let’s not pretend like it is changing his body format like steroids or HGH would.

Maybe an Adderall ban is more about protecting player safety so that these guys aren’t juicing themselves up with stimulants to dangerous levels on gamedays. I can understand that too. You wouldn’t want a bunch of NFL players collapsing on the field from making their heart explode by overdosing on stimulants. Even then, though, why would you bother popping a guy for using a stimulant like that in the off-season? Are you worried about his well-being, the sport’s reputation, government regulation, or what?

That’s what it comes down to for me. If Lance Armstrong is truly guilty of cheating, does it tarnish the reputation of cycling? As far as I can tell, it couldn’t possibly with the prevailing opinions of cycling anyway. If Joe Haden is guilty of popping Adderall on an off-season run in Vegas3 that he didn’t want to end, is it challenging the validity of NFL contests or somehow giving Joe Haden an unfair advantage over other corners seeking contract dollars? Eh. Good luck convincing me of that.

As is frequently the case, I don’t have all the answers and (too) many questions. Frankly, I don’t know all the history and all the reasons that the drug policies in the various sports are the way they are today, even if I have a decent idea. I don’t know all the different motivations and circumstances that led to them. What I do know is that I have a tough time respecting a rule that nails Joe Haden for some off-season exploits that don’t involve steroids, HGH or some other more permanent performance enhancers. This goes the same for pretty much anything that can be purchased at GNC. I also have trouble being upset with Lance Armstrong for cheating in a sport that is seemingly full of almost nothing but cheaters.

So maybe I should put the drug banner up on my wall. Seems like a winning team, anyway. Everyone loves a winner, right?

  1. I’ll pass on naming it because I don’t want to endorse it, per se. []
  2. Fat and out of shape. []
  3. as Pro Football Talk reported was the locker room talk of the Joe Haden incident… []

  • Garry_Owen

    Good and fair piece, Craig.
    The thing that troubles me the most about Armstrong’s situation (and I’m no fan, per se), is that – unless I’m mistaken – he NEVER tested positive for doping. Yet, some agency, based on the “where there’s tons of smoke (i.e., 7 TdF wins), there must be at least a little flame, even if we can’t find it” theory, has said that he’s guilty and has somehow “stripped” him of his 7 victorys. Notwithstanding the fact that they can no more strip him of TdF wins any more than you can tell me that Penn State didn’t win all of those games, this is a very troubling development.
    I can understand why Armstrong wouldn’t want to fight this fight any longer – subjecting himself to repeated testing and insane scrutiny, but there’s a big part of me that wished he had continued the fight, particularly if he really was as clean as he said. As it is, it just seems like “might (and unfounded suspision) makes right.” And that sucks.
    At the end of the day, though, I guess I don’t care that Armstrong may have been doping. These dudes climb the Alps (or something) on bicycles for weeks at a time. If they’re not doping, they’re just plain crazy; and insanity can be as much of a performance enhancer as any drug.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Haden should be suspended for just being stupid, period. Armstrong on the other hand is a shame but he can join Barry Bonds on the Mount Rushmore of offenders now. Whether it’s justified or not.

    Craig if you ever need me to send you a clean sample just let me know I’m here for you! I’m just sayin’. 😉

  • Harv 21

    disagree about Armstrong, Garry. He has the resources and every incentive to protect his rep, as it will greatly affect his worldwide fame, fortune and charitable work. My understanding is that he is crying uncle now in the face of factually stronger allegations.

    I am also not a biking fan but I know what his brand stands for and these allegations cut right to the heart of his image.His career is based on a narrative of sheer will overcoming disease and superhuman effort in come from behind victories. If it’s baseless he has no reason not to fight it forever with the determination that made him famous, rather than whimpering “witch hunt” and skulking away. No, I think Armstrong is pulling a Pete Rose here, and hoping he might retain some plausible deniability with this fig leaf ending.

  • mgbode

    they are not stronger allegations though. they are the same allegations that were thrown out of the criminal court. the problem that Armstrong is in is that they are no longer in criminal court and he is almost guaranteed to lose based on the level of criteria being less and then would have to fight that loss.
    i have little doubt that he soft-doped (doped to levels that wouldn’t trigger a positive test), but i am happy that this is done as the amount of time, money and effort spent chasing Bonds, Clemens, and Armstrong is laughable.

  • Steve

    “Whether it’s justified or not”

    This says a lot. We’re more interested in the witchhunt than the truth.

  • Garry_Owen

    You may be right, but I’ve never walked (or biked) a mile in his shoes. I can at least comprehend that he might be tired of the fight, though “innocent.” Besides, the longer he fights, the more he has to lose (including a fortune) in a battle that he cannot win (though he arguably already did). It’s not like anyone can reverse history. We all know that he dominated a doped-up field in one of the most grueling sporting events in the world (the Indians trying to win a game notwithstanding). He did what he did, and we all know it. Arguably, by stopping the fight, the only ones that look petulant are those that decry him for something they can’t prove.

    Anyway, sheer will overcoming obstacles can wear anyone out after a while.

  • Go Cavs

    I think we all should wake up to the fact that PEDs are a bigger part of these sports than most care to admit. When you are trying to compete at the highest of the highest level in football, baseball, cycling, or what have you, you simply cannot afford to not use any advantage you can unless you are just a freak of nature and supremely talented.

  • saggy

    Nice job, Craig!

    a couple of quick points:

    1. i work as a strength coach for a pro sports team ( won’t say which one but if you know where i live and what i like to do, you can figure it out). Just so you know: at LEAST 80% of NFL players are on drugs. likely more. not all steroids and HGH, but something. 1a.because of their collective bargaining agreement, players don’t get told when they are getting tested but someone else does. hmmm….I wonder why we haven’t seen more positive tests….
    2. For reasons too long to go on about, I used to work inside of a cycling/multisport center. I worked alongside former Olympic-medalist cyclists and Kona top-5 finishers. They KNOW the sport. One of them has been friends with Lance since they rode together for 7-11. Through him and others, here is what I know of Lance (which is probably not surprising): **He is a COMPLETE jerk. One of the jerkiest athletes of all-time. Seriously makes Pete Rose look like Ernie Banks. **He is a doper. They ALL are. The people I know have doped with him. They have no reason to lie anymore, and every reason to have taken EPO.
    **His foundation only donates to cancer AWARENESS – not to the research. (Thanks for that, Lance, it appears there are so many people on earth who are unaware of what cancer is.)


  • Jim

    Just to clarify on Armstrong, these are not stronger allegations at all – in fact they are far weaker allegations that are coming from an administrative entity with a different standard of proof, rather than a governmental agency with a standard of proof that we would come to expect as American citizens. Armstrong already “won” in Court because there was no proof that he had lied under oath (perjury, somethings thats almost impossible to prove in federal court because it has such a high burden of proof). He is throwing in the towel not because he is “crying uncle” but because the nature of the USADA cycling charges do not presume him to be innocent until proven guilty – instead its almost a presumption of guilt based on attenuated circumstances without any real, hard proof of a positive test. From a legal perspective (I have a legal background), his decision to stop fighting the case is strategic in that it will expose the USADA system as being so far removed from our typical justice system that it will evoke public outrage and lead to internal change.