I have written a few posts about Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) here on the blog, and I am pretty sure this won’t be my last. I find it fascinating that major media outlets like ESPN seem to completely miss the reality of the story despite the constant attempts of the story to explain it to them.
The fundamental premise I work under is that PED use is ALL about recovery (with an asterisk for endurance sports). The prevailing theme is that it is all about MUSCLES, like some deranged Popeye comic strip. But little by little the inescapable thrust of PED news is all about recovery from injury. A-Rod, or as uber-mensch Steve Somers would say, A-Roid, gets identified as a possible user of Deer Antler Extract! Fucking “deer antler extract” is where these people are willing to go to enhance their ability to recover from injury and surgery. Alex Rodriguez is, in my opinion incredibly gifted as an athlete, and a complete tool in his interaction with the public. He is also enduring the derailing of his top-flight, top-paying career by injury. He isn’t getting body slammed by linebackers, or enduring the physical grind of hockey. He plays third base for the New York Yankees. Not exactly the decathlon, but they play a 162 game regular season. As I previously opinionated with respect to Barry Bonds, these players have the physical tools, but they have to be able to recover from the constant onslaught of games, batting practice, and conditioning work.
My point here: is it really fair to keep upping the ante in team sports, and not give players tools to recover? Equipment gets more specialized, playing surfaces become more specialized, training diets become honed to a razor edge… but when a player takes a ligament strain, repetitive motion injury, contusion, bone break, etc… we basically tell them to use 1968 technology for recovery. I am well aware of the need for continuity in the record books, but that doesn’t mean that Jacoby Ellsbury has to play in 1940’s footwear. Nobody is telling Vince Wilfork to strap on the leather helmet.
While it may seem like I am promoting the opening of the PED floodgates, I am actually saying the opposite. I believe that the floodgates are open NOW, and that many athletes know what and when and how to dope, and most do not get caught. They use facilities like anti-aging clinics and overseas blood-therapy clinics, and they are not going to stop. They have too much riding on it. IT WORKS, for one thing. They have to negotiate ridiculously short recovery times after surgery or injury in order to stay on the field. And if you can take something to prevent injury, well that is just a whole lot easier and any sane person would go that route.
Back to the centerline of the sports-media depiction of PED’s: They are not looking for better controls on use, or better research, or better testing. The real story is the interaction of sports culture, sports technology, and sports medicine, and the disconnects in that network. As the sports fan (and media) becomes more accustomed to the television revenue, salary cap and team payroll issues, the entertainment factor, and the business factor, should they not also acclimate themselves to the medical realities of sport?
One of the biggest sports stories of 2012 was the recognition by the NFL that brain injuries were becoming a factor in both current players, as well as retired players. Several high profile suicides, and a general easing of a taboo on talking about mental health and brain function issues by NFL players, brought the issue to the fore. Simultaneously there was an eruption of PED-related news, including the spectre of PED’s influencing baseball Hall of Fame voting to Lance Armstrong confessing to Oprah about PED use. (Egad! is that what it comes to? Oprah as Confessor? No wonder the sports media are so thoroughly screwed.) The facts were there for anyone who was interested. Yes, Lance Armstrong is an endurance athlete (asterisk mentioned above), and his PEDs were more in line with oxygen management drugs, but I feel reasonably sure that enhancing recovery from both daily stages, races, and training was part of his regimen as well. I think an honest assessment would indicate that recovery in multi-day events was Job One.
Just like A-Rod and Bonds, and most of the NFL from what I can tell, Lance has some amazing natural abilities when it comes to human strength and endurance (if only I could endure him as well… he has become the Ray Lewis of the bike, simply unwatchable). But as you might expect, so are many of his competitors. Pro-level athletes are both self-selecting and benefit from sport-specific training. Anyone who thinks that a doughy, pot-smoking couch potato is dropping some HGH and running a 4.2sec 40 yard dash should stick to comic books. But if you are watching a 325pound NFL lineman run a 4.6 40, consider that he might be able to handle that kind of exertion, plus the exertion of four months-plus of benchpressing his opponents if he has a pharmaceutical tailwind. You should be OK with that, within reason and out in the open.
As I have already gasbagged it enough here, I’ll just say that i think it is time for the sports fan, the sports media, the sports industry, et. al. to grow up and realize that their ravenous demand for more, bigger, faster, stronger, ouchier sports is not fed by faceless laborers on some distant planet. Real doctors working within a real testing program can keep those highly paid athletes healthy longer, both on the field and and beyond their playing days. You just need to stop pretending that Tinkerbell is the ideal sports league commissioner.