Saturday, November 10, 2007


Stephanie Stepp, the host of the show I contribute to called ‘What’s Going On’ on WHCR here in Harlem, sends a weekly press release to all of her listeners and contributors the day prior to her Sunday broadcast. While this week’s release has a heavy boxing focus because of the huge fight between Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto, she brought up an interesting point about the change in sports conversations over the years. In the past, people would speak about compelling play by some of the all-time greats in amazement, building stories of their legends through street corner conversations and burgeoning pride in communities across the land. These days, the mere mention of a terrific player brings about suspicion, doubt and blind curiosity about how the player became great. It’s no longer enough to be the absolute best in the game, but an athlete at any level has to become great without some sort of assistance or clouded circumstance.

The words ‘assistance’ and ‘clouded circumstance’ are code for steroids, performance-enhancers and doping. Trying to connect people to potential use has been difficult because of the lack of cooperation or even the resistance to admit to something they may not feel is entirely wrong. Yet this is where our sports conversations these days have steered to; the questions and scrutiny of what would have just been extraordinary achievements in the past.

There were two seemingly small moments this week that sounded the alarm for this entry. The first involved Mike Golic (below), the former defensive lineman for Notre Dame and in the NFL who is the co-host of ESPN’s highly-popular ‘Mike and Mike’ radio show. On November 7th, Golic coyly admitted to using steroids at one point in his NFL career, but it wasn’t until two days later that a caller asked him flat out if he did while discussing the Troy Williamson story. Golic reiterated what he said earlier in the week and elaborated on why, saying that he used them when trying to recover from injury.

The second moment may not lend itself much discussion these days, but profound, nonetheless. CNN interviewed injured WWE star John Cena (l.) for a ‘documentary’ which aired this week. “Death Grip: Inside Pro Wrestling” was supposed to highlight the lowlights of the industry, continuing to profile the sports entertainment genre in the aftermath of the murder/suicide committed by Chris Benoit back in June. The interview shows Cena skirting around the question of performance-enhancing, however, the WWE has defended itself by posting the unedited interview contrasting with the broadcasted question. Cena denies use and further explains the complication with the question.

These notes in sports news this week raised an eyebrow not because of who was involved or even because of the responsibility of the news organizations to find the truth (or in ESPN’s case, casually ignore). They made me think because as a fan and media type who wanted to play sports, I wonder at times about what would make an athlete take a chance to use enhancers. It has been easy to lay into players for using or just been accused of using. It has been second nature to demand accountability from sports leagues and nowadays, government. Yet, there are few people who are willing to speak in defense of users, to boldly explain exactly why athletes find it necessary to circumvent rules and laws for enhancers. For those who have, such as Golic, what may seem like a valid reason can turn into an excuse for ‘cheating’ in the eyes of those who think of enhancing as an unfair advantage and immoral deed. Whether you are a follower of professional wrestling or not, Cena’s point about answering the question may sound as if he waffled, but it speaks to the point of trying to validate athletic achievement in this era. Can an athlete be honest with the question and truthful with his or her choices without facing intense criticism and jeopardize his of her career? Can an athlete explain why (s)he used without fear of incriminating others and being blacklisted from participating in sports? Does doping and enhancing make athletes as crazed, evil, over the top and devious as this?

Probably one of the few issues that President George W. Bush can highlight as a success in his time in the White Hose is the sudden aggressive nature towards athletes and the use of performance enhancers. If you recall during his 2004 State of the Union, Bush discussed this issue in the context of the War on Drugs and the need for children to have strong role models. What seemed out of left field in that speech – especially being that he was a part owner of the Texas Rangers – almost four years ago has the look of a mandate followed to a T these days. Federal agents are busting pharmacies with illegal connections to these drugs. School districts across the nation are debating or actually instituting drug testing policies for their student-athletes. More importantly, all media are getting in on the fun, further supporting the strength of Bush’s mandate.

Today, we find out about more allegations than we find out about upcoming games. Today, we see HGH pop up on the TV screen as ‘breaking news’, no matter how much of the story is available for public consumption. When Paul Byrd admitted to having a prescription for human growth hormone shortly after the Cleveland Indians made the ALCS, it took away attention from what was turning into a potential dream story for a city thirsting for a championship. With all of the venom and hysteria, it’s hard to find out what’s really going on and why. These most recent insights from Byrd, Golic and Cena are telling society something if it pays attention.

Because he wasn’t a record holder or integral part to a Super Bowl winner, Golic’s admission won’t exactly push the NFL or ESPN to publicly support, deny or acknowledge that players will use steroids to get back on the field after injury to keep their jobs. Because the WWE has been further vilified after the Benoit tragedy – and the Federal Government has only desired now to clean up professional wrestling despite getting to Vince McMahon in 1993 – Cena’s edited words may still be used as fuel for the continued fight against performance enhancers, if people even care to listen. And let’s be honest, Byrd isn’t Roger Clemens. So while Stephanie is definitely right in wondering why the topic of those barbershop conversations has shifted some, we are trapped in only thinking from a fan's or media head's perspective.

Right now, an active player that is recuperating from a major injury and hoping to get back to the field of play is debating what to do. Should (s)he add an enhancer to speed up the recovery and train sooner in hopes of reclaiming the skills and confidence prior to the injury? Should the athlete let nature completely take its course and risk the chance of never being the same? No matter which side of the fence you are on, you can’t forget that there aren’t that many people in the world who have crafted and tuned their entire physical, mental and emotional being to make a living as a pro athlete or play to become one. So, honestly ask yourself this question:

What would you do?

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