On ESPN's Grantland, Bill Simmons finally gets around to pointing out (in "Daring to Ask the PED Question) that in 21st Century America, private conversations and public conversations don't have much to do with each other. (This applies to far more than just the role of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, of course.)
I've been interested in the effects of performance-enhancing drugs since, maybe, the 1976 East German women's swim team wiped out Shirley Babashoff's American team. Steroids and other artificial or natural male hormones have always been more interesting to me than HGH or EPO because the former are related to the sexes, to masculinity and femininity, and thus to the arts and society.
What could be more interesting than a vast experiment in which celebrities artificially up their male hormone levels before our very eyes? What experiment has more fascinating ramifications?
Spectator sports exist largely as celebrations of masculinity. The arts exist, in large part, to celebrate various combinations of masculinity and femininity (see Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia).
For example, 66-year-old Sylvester Stallone has a new action movie out. The role of PEDs in Stallone's unusual career is one that deserves serious analysis that I've never seen it get. Keep in mind that, strange as it seems now, four decades ago, Stallone wrote the most perfect, the most influential commercial movie screenplay since, maybe, Casablanca. He's an interesting guy, yet I've almost never seen anything analyzing the impact of steroids on popular culture.
But let's come back to sports.
Simmons wrote yesterday:
If everyone is secretly suspicious of so many athletic achievements in the 21st century, why aren't we talking about it?
By Bill Simmons on February 1, 2013
I made a deal with myself a long time ago: My column needed to capture the things I discuss with my friends. Last week, I realized that wasn't totally happening anymore. Something of a disconnect had emerged between my private conversations and the things I wrote for Grantland/ESPN. In essence, I had turned into two people. There's Sports Fan Me, and there's ESPN Me.
Sports Fan Me is candid, jaded, suspicious of everyone. Sports Fan Me repeatedly gets involved in arguments and e-mail chains centered on the question, "Do you think he's cheating?" Sports Fan Me has Googled athletes' heads and jawlines, studied their sizes, then mailed before/after pictures to friends with the subject heading, "CHECK THIS OUT." ...
ESPN Me sticks his head in the sand and doesn't say anything.
ESPN Me occasionally pushes narratives that he doesn't totally believe in.
ESPN Me didn't have the balls to run two e-mails that you're about to read.
They nearly landed in each of my last four mailbags. Each time, I pulled both e-mails (and my responses) from those columns at the last minute.
E-mail no. 1 (from David B. in Concord, North Carolina): "Why isn't anyone questioning [Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl linebacker] Ray Lewis's miraculous recovery from a torn triceps muscle? At age 37, not only did he recover in 10 weeks from an injury that usually takes 6 months minimum for recovery, but, upon returning, he played at a higher level than before he was injured. Are sports 'journalists' incapable of learning from their own mistakes (we JUST HAD both the Baseball HOF vote and Lance admitting to steroid use), or is the sport just bigger than the truth?"
E-mail no. 2 (from Ben Miller in Fort Worth, Texas): "Instead of Beyonce, should we change the Super Bowl halftime show to just Adrian Peterson pissing in a cup at midfield? ...
Sports Fan Me spent most of November and December debating the Lewis/Peterson topics with friends and coworkers, so Sports Fan Me wanted to run those e-mails. ESPN Me overruled him, believing it was unfair to speculate without any real proof … even though ongoing speculation has become as big a part of sports fandom as purchasing tickets or buying a replica jersey. That's the disconnect.
Before those Miami New Times/Sports Illustrated bombshells dropped this week [about an "anti-aging clinic" and Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees] and we started joking about deer-antler spray, I would have wagered anything that God didn't miraculously heal Ray Lewis's torn tricep. I never actually wrote this. Alluded to it, danced around it, joked about it … just never actually came out and wrote it. I stayed away from Peterson jokes for a different reason: His historic comeback (and historically great season) seemed conceivable. ...
Then again, I like Adrian Peterson. ...
Will I look back at Peterson's remarkable season someday and say, "God, how did we NOT know? How stupid were we?" I say no.
But I don't know for sure. And that's the problem. There is no such thing as "the benefit of the doubt" anymore. Not in sports. Too many people took advantage. All the benefits are gone.
A few weeks ago, we finished a Baseball Hall of Fame voting process in which nobody was selected. Not a single guy. Keep in mind, the following stars were eligible: one of the greatest outfielders ever, one of the greatest starting pitchers ever, two of the most imposing sluggers ever, one of the greatest offensive first basemen ever, the single greatest offensive catcher ever, a member of the 500–home run club, and someone who reached base more than anyone in history except for 17 players. None of them made it to Cooperstown. Five were shunned because we were getting back at them — they cheated, they burned us, they let us down. Two were bypassed because of circumstantial evidence — we were pretty sure they cheated, and since they never defended themselves that passionately, they were out. The last guy missed out because of our anger toward the other seven guys, and because a few-dozen holier-than-thou baseball writers keep stubbornly protecting a fantasy world that no longer exists.
Really, those snubs were driven by our residual guilt about what we didn't do during baseball's steroid boom. We ignored their swollen noggins and rippling biceps. We weren't fazed by seemingly inexplicable surges in production, or even something as fundamentally perplexing as a 37-year-old doubles hitter suddenly hitting 50-plus homers. We didn't just look the other way; we threw heavy burlap bags over our heads and taped our eyeballs shut. And because we never stepped up, those enterprising dickheads bastardized baseball and ruined one of its most sacred qualities: the wholly unique way that eight generations of players relate to one another through statistics and records. ...
We look the other way when NFL players are allowed to create any excuse they want for a four-game drug suspension (usually Adderall), or when David Stern tells a reporter that he doesn't see how PEDs would help NBA players (yeah, right).
We look the other way as the NBA keeps its own little Santa Claus streak going: Of all the running-and-jumping sports that feature world-class athletes competing at the highest level, only the NBA hasn't had a single star get nailed for performance enhancers … you know, because there's no way hundreds of overcompetitive stars with massive egos would ever cheat to gain an edge with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. ...
Think about that phrase again. Hasn't it become an essential part of following sports? Why won't we admit it? ...
Some of my favorite ways include …
• Skip the Olympics (which has much stricter drug testing) in your prime for any dubious reason and you're on the list.
• Enjoy your best season in years in your late 30s, four or five years after your last "best season," and you're on the list.
• If you're a skinny dude who miraculously managed to add 20 pounds of muscle to your scarecrow frame, you're on the list.
• If you chopped down the recovery time of a debilitating injury to something that just didn't seem possible a year ago, you're on the list.
• If you were really good and really ripped at a really young age, and now your body is breaking down much sooner than it should be breaking down, you're on the list.
• If you're exhibiting a level of superhuman endurance that has little correlation to the endurance of any of your competitors, you're on the list. ...
The following anecdote is 100 percent true …
NBA players get tested up to four times during the course of a season. The fourth time can happen at any point from October to June, but once it happens, that's it. So if your fourth test occurs after your 71st game, you're clear the rest of the way. It's a running joke within NBA circles, something of a get-out-of-jail-free card: Once you pee in that fourth cup, you're good to go. Put whatever you want into your body. Feel like smoking enough weed to make Harold and Kumar blush? Knock yourself out. Feel like replacing your blood with cleaner blood so you have more endurance for the playoffs? Knock yourself out. Feel like starting a testosterone cycle because you might have to play 25 grueling playoff games over the next 10 weeks? Knock yourself out. Remember how competitive these guys are. What would they do for an edge? How far would they go? And why are we giving them the choice?
The following anecdote is also 100 percent true …
When Bertrand Berry and Ty Warren suffered a complete tear of their triceps, it took them six months to recover. When Arizona left tackle Levi Brown suffered a complete tear of his triceps in August 2012, the Cardinals immediately put him on their season-ending injured list. When Ray Lewis suffered a complete tear of his triceps in mid-October, we thought he was finished for the season … only he returned to action a little more than two months later. During the third month of his "recovery," he made 17 tackles in a double-overtime playoff game in Denver. In 13-degree weather. At age 37.
So when Lewis's name landed in this week's PED scandal, nobody tumbled over in shock. We wasted the rest of Super Bowl week talking about him, wondering whether he cheated, watching his denial for signs that he was lying, Googling "deer antler spray" and talking about everything other than the game.
Eventually, the moment will pass, like it always does. Nothing will change. ...
Henry Abbott's exhaustive piece on the NBA and PEDs made a fantastic point: Why did FIFA make biological passports (the single best way to catch cheaters right now) mandatory for the 2014 World Cup, but the NBA can't even convince its players to allow blood testing?
By the way, the world's greatest athlete is Lionel Messi, global soccer player of the year the last four years in a row. He took HGH medication as a child to help him grow to over five feet tall. Does Messi abuse PEDs now? I looked for pictures of him ripping his shirt off after he scores a goal, but he appears to be just about the only soccer player who doesn't. Does Messi not take his shirt off because his torso is unnaturally ripped due to all the PEDs he's taking? Or does he not take his shirt off because he's embarrassed that his torso isn't unnaturally ripped because he isn't taking PEDs? Or (as unlikely as this sounds in a 21st Century celebrity), does Messi not take his shirt off after every goal because he has a sense of dignity and manners befitting the world's highest achieving sportsman?
Really? You're that fearful of what we'd find in your blood, NBA players? If you're not fearful, why allow your representatives to make it seem like you're that fearful? How can you expect me NOT to wonder if you're cheating? Especially when so many other world-class athletes are cheating? Are you really expecting me to believe that Don MacLean, Matt Geiger, Soumaila Samake, Lindsey Hunter, Darius Miles, Rashard Lewis and O.J. Mayo — seven guys with a combined two All-Star appearances — were the only NBA players who ever used banned performance enhancers? ...
I believe that Ray Lewis cheated. I believe that to be true based on circumstantial evidence, his age, his overcompetitiveness, the history of that specific injury, and the fact that his "recovery" made my shit detector start vibrating like a chainsaw.
I believe in my right to write the previous paragraph because athletes pushed us to this point. We need better drug testing. We need blood testing. We need biological passports. We need that stuff now. Not in three years. Not in two years. Now. I don't even know what I am watching anymore.
I believe we need to fix this disconnect between our private conversations and our public ones. Cheating in professional sports is an epidemic. Wondering about the reasons behind a dramatically improved performance, or a dramatically fast recovery time, shouldn't be considered off-limits for media members. We shouldn't feel like scumbags bringing this stuff up.
A few questions for readers:
Last summer I pointed out that tennis great Roger Federer, with his shirt off, looks like Sean Connery with his shirt off in an early James Bond movie, not like some anatomical exhibit like many of his rivals.
A reader suggested that the L.A. Clippers point guard Chris Paul, an MVP candidate this season, seldom looks absurdly ripped.
And then we're down to golfers like Phil Mickelson ... (Has Tiger gotten over his SEAL Team Six phase?)
To me, a couple of obvious candidates are local heroes of my boyhood. A candidate for helping pioneer use of the The Juice in college football might be The Juice himself, O.J. Simpson, who at USC in 1967-68 was probably the most famous college football player of all time.
Now, you might think that writing an article making insinuations that maybe the character of O.J. Simpson wasn't as pure as we had once assumed wouldn't be that daunting to sportswriters. But, it doesn't seem to come up much.
My other candidate is Wilt Chamberlain. He didn't get any taller, but around the time he came out to L.A. he got a lot wider due to weightlifting. Until Wilt's late career, everybody had assumed that the beanpole look was ideal for basketball players.