After year rich in scandals, the excuses are still poor


The Kickoff

August 01, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

It has been exactly one year since news broke of Rafael Palmeiro's positive steroid test - and what have we learned?

Steroid testing and discipline are tougher than ever, but - judging by the Tour de France testosterone flap involving Floyd Landis - the quality of the excuses has not improved at all.

Landis continues to profess his innocence and insist he has a naturally occurring elevated level of testosterone, even though multiple tests before his Stage 17 urine sample apparently didn't detect it. He also pointed to the thyroid hormone that he takes for his bad hip and that he was drinking the night before the amazing mountain stage comeback that propelled him to victory.

Every one of those explanations tells you he isn't expecting his "B" sample to come back negative. Never mind that he basically told youngsters that if you want to excel at the highest levels of sport, it's not a bad idea to pound a few shots the night before the event.

Palmeiro delivered a statement on Aug. 1 of last year insisting he never would intentionally use steroids, but he painted himself into a corner by saying there was an explanation for the positive test and he might be able to reveal it at a later date. No such explanation has been forthcoming, other than the vitamin B-12 revelations that fractured the Orioles' clubhouse.

To be fair, there is a mathematical possibility that both athletes are telling the truth, though I don't have a calculator that goes that far to the right of the decimal point.

I'm not sure the whole truth is even ascertainable anymore. The anti-doping programs in the various sports are supposed to be about keeping the playing field level for all athletes, but the players who have been caught have proved that it is just as much about public relations - both good and bad.

Palmeiro did a horrible job of making his case to the media and the public. He set himself up for a fall by pointing his finger at the House Committee on Government Reform and then committed PR suicide by entrusting his image to high-powered lawyers who handled him like a criminal defendant instead of a future Hall of Famer.

That's why he's home coaching his kids (which isn't such a bad thing) instead of squeezing one more year out of his great playing career.

Mark McGwire also got some bad legal advice. He never tested positive for any banned substance, and there were no credible reports of any wrongdoing, but by the time he finished dodging all the pertinent questions at the congressional steroid hearings, he looked as guilty as Jose Canseco. Now, he's in danger of being passed over when his name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in December.

Meanwhile, New York Yankees star Jason Giambi chose to face the reports of his alleged steroid abuse head-on. He called a news conference to apologize to Yankees fans after his name surfaced in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative scandal. He never specifically admitted to using steroids, but the general mea culpa was enough to get him past the issue and allow him to continue his career, which is going pretty well.

Even Barry Bonds has shown some PR savvy, though he is so disagreeable that almost everyone wants to believe the worst about him. He agreed to do a reality television show on ESPN in an attempt to get some control over his public image, and he has - so far - kept the BALCO grand jury and commissioner Bud Selig at bay.

Landis is in the eye of the storm now, and he's attempting to control the damage with selected television appearances that get his side of the story to the public. It's not a bad strategy, but it probably won't save him if the "B" sample does not miraculously come back clean.

Major League Baseball recognizes the public relations dimension better than anyone, which explains why Selig commissioned former Sen. George Mitchell to spearhead a comprehensive investigation into the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Mitchell does not have subpoena power to force suspected offenders to testify, so his chances of tearing the cover off the sport's steroid scandal are slim, but baseball had a huge public relations problem and the investigation helped quiet criticism that the game had turned a blind eye to the blossoming steroid problem during the home run boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

So what have we learned since the Palmeiro revelation one year ago today? We learned that baseball's beefed-up steroid testing program is working, because no other big-name major leaguer has tested positive since he was put to shame. And we learned from Jason Grimsley that anyone who tests positive for garden variety steroids is a fool, because human growth hormone is almost as effective and almost impossible to detect.

We also learned from the latest cycling scandal (which involved a total of nine riders in the Tour de France) that as long as there are great rewards for athletic excellence, people will try to beat whatever system is in place to discourage cheating.

So one year after Palmeiro, does that mean we're still spinning our wheels?

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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