In steroid era, fans balance sentiment against cynicismNeil Hayes


The Kickoff


I was back in the Chicago area to surprise my dad on Father's Day. The driver from the car service who picked me up at the airport was a kindly older woman. She was in a good mood. Her grandchild had been born earlier that day.

It didn't take long for the conversation to turn to sports.

She was reading Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroid Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports. She was a realist. She wasn't surprised to learn how widespread the use of performance-enhancing drugs among elite athletes truly was.

"I always wondered about Walter Payton," she said. "He died so young."

Payton died of bile duct cancer in 1999. He was 45. I had never so much as considered that the disease that claimed the life of the Chicago Bears running back could be steroid-related.

I later realized what she was doing, what I'm doing, what we're all doing as one doping scandal after another rocks the sports world: We're searching for a middle ground between sentimentalism and cynicism. We don't want to be suspicious of our sports heroes past and present, but we don't want to be naive, either. We don't want to go around accusing every athlete of cheating, but we feel like rubes when we find out after the fact.

Where is that line between understanding that doping is prevalent in sports and not being suspicious of everyone and everything? Nobody is accusing Payton of anything here. In fact, "Sweetness" is the last person anybody should suspect of using performance-enhancing drugs.

His playing weight - 205 pounds - remained consistent throughout his Hall of Fame career. His durability alone would seem to discount his doping. Nagging injuries that can be side effects of steroids didn't prevent him from playing in an astounding 189 of 190 games in 13 NFL seasons.

There's no doubt that steroid use by NFL players was common during Payton's playing days. He certainly could've had access to them.

He did die of cancer at a young age, and the long-term use of steroids lowers the immune system and can damage the liver and the kidneys.

That's the whole point, you see. We don't know. We'll never know, and therefore we're free to wonder not just about Payton but anyone and everyone from Roger Clemens to Lance Armstrong to Albert Pujols.

About all we do know is that doping is everywhere. Just when some had concluded that baseball had been purged of performance-enhancing drugs as a result of more stringent drug testing, Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Jason Grimsley gets busted for human growth hormone.

Just when Armstrong was being cleared of reports that he cheated to win the first of seven straight Tour de France titles, a new scandal rocks the sport, resulting in three pre-race favorites being ousted from this year's Tour.

New reports of Tour de France riders undergoing blood transfusions between stages and eating cocaine-laced concoctions to improve their stamina are rampant, leading us to wonder if they're true or just imaginations run amok.

Allegations about performance-enhancing drugs even threatened to curdle the strawberries and cream at Wimbledon when promising young Spaniard Rafael Nadal was linked to a lab where officials found steroids and blood-doping equipment. Nadal, like virtually everybody else who has been rightly or wrongly accused of steroid abuse, denies any wrongdoing.

Jose Canseco says we haven't seen anything yet. He promises to unload more damaging body blows about baseball in a new book and movie. The threat of Barry Bonds being charged with perjury looms over the San Francisco Giants. Baseball's investigation into steroid use by players past and present casts a long shadow over the game.

Meanwhile, everybody - the innocent and the guilty - gets caught up in the toxic floodwaters during these scandals until you find yourself sitting on the Illinois Tollway late one night listening to a reasonable woman ask a reasonable question in these uncertain times.

Did Walter Payton take steroids? Did he or didn't he? Welcome to the 21st century, where sooner or later we all end up struggling with the same question.

I refuse to believe Payton took anything stronger than a protein shake, but that's me. That's where I draw the line. What others choose to believe as they search for common ground is their business.

No matter where you stand on this issue, this much is true: The cheaters are winning and they're dragging everybody else down with them.

Neil Hayes writes for the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times.

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