Advice to steroid users: Don't say it ain't so

Our view: From Bobby Thomson to Roger Clemens, accusations of cheating have dogged athletes

forgiveness awaits the ones who come clean

August 28, 2010

Don't say it ain't so. That is one lesson to be learned from the parade of sports heroes who have been questioned by federal authorities about using steroids and other performance-enhancers.

The latest star whose luster has dimmed considerably, former hurler Roger Clemens, has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that he lied before Congress. The charges stem from Mr. Clemens' 2008 testimony in which he heatedly denied that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. If convicted, he could face up to 30 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine.

Meanwhile, federal investigator Jeff Novitzky has premier cyclist Lance Armstrong in his sights. Mr. Novitzky spearheaded an investigation of drug use by home run champion Barry Bonds. Mr. Bonds is facing a trial in March on perjury charges. Mr. Novitzky also worked on the inquiry that sent Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones to prison for lying to investigators.

Mr. Novitzky is looking into charges that Mr. Armstrong defrauded sponsors of the U.S. Postal Service cycling team by using illegal doping regimens. Mr. Armstrong has steadfastly denied the accusations, despite the fact that some of his fellow cyclists, including Floyd Landis (an admitted cheater), say Mr. Armstrong is not telling the truth.

The investigation of Mr. Armstrong is complicated by the fact that in many ways he appears to be a good guy doing good works — a reputation that Mr. Clemens does not share. Mr. Armstrong is a cancer survivor and has devoted much time and energy to his Livestrong foundation, which works to improve the lives of people affected by cancer. His followers, who wear a yellow bracelet signifying that their lives have been touched by cancer, number in the millions.

Nonetheless a good man can at times do bad things.

That, in short, has been the defense of a string of major league baseball players, including several Orioles, who admitted occasional use of banned substances, apologized for it and moved on. The Oriole exception was Rafael Palmeiro, who told Congress in March 2005 that he never used steroids, then tested positive for them a few months later and was given a 10-day suspension by Major League Baseball.

Athletes are always looking for something that will give them an edge over competitors. Bobby Thomson, who died this month at the age of 86 and whose dramatic ninth-inning home run in 1951 vaulted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers into the 1951 World Series, could have known what kind of pitch Ralph Branca was going to throw him. Mr. Thomson's Giant teammates, using a spy with a centerfield telescope and an elaborate series of signals, were stealing signs from opposing catchers and telling the hitter what pitch was coming.

Until 2006, when baseball players were first tested for amphetamines, a coffee pot laced with "greenies" reportedly was standard locker room fare. Before he died this month in Catonsville at the age of 79, Harold Connolly, the winner of the hammer throw in the 1956 Olympics, told New York sportswriter Robert Lipsyte that in the days before drug testing and prohibition, he and his fellow hammer throwers regularly used steroids to help their bodies recover.

In private moments, away from prosecutors, athletes often argue that by taking performance-enhancing drugs, they are just following the normative behavior of their sport. In other words, since everybody else is doing it, they don't really have an edge.

Does a batter on steroids have an advantage facing a pitcher on steroids? It is an argument that misses key points. Namely, that in most cases, taking performance-enhancing drugs is illegal — and, knowing that, athletes try to cover up their behavior.

You can't rely solely on the athletes to make the rules for a sport. Instead, a sport's custodians, its commissioners and federations, must set the standards that athletes have to adhere to. These are moving targets, much like campaign finance rules, that have to be adjusted as conditions change and the cheaters maneuver.

Some of the answers to the issue of steroids in sports are not obvious. But one is: When asked if they use them or have used them, athletes must tell the truth.

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