Let's Be Blunt

drugs beyond the locker room

by by Rachel Sanders

These days, it doesn’t take much more than a mere whisper of steroid use to derail an athlete’s career. Although some, like A-Rod, have bounced back from scandal, anyone from Floyd Landis to Marion Jones could tell you that anabolics aren’t always a shortcut to happiness. But off the field, plenty of athletes seem to use drugs the same way most people do: for fun.

The interesting thing is that recent news stories highlight a pattern of inconsistency in reactions to different kinds of athletic drug use. Chalk it up to a laid-back attitude or a rabid dedication to fair play, but many of the same fans and journalists who hiss and throw stones when athletes use steroids will shrug tolerantly when a player decides to cut loose and snort lines. On top of that, the intensity of condemnation varies hugely depending on the specific sport, the drug, and the athlete, and the anti-doping rules in effect don’t clear up all that much. Truth be told, it’s all a bit of a blur.

Off the mound and onto the grass
The good news is that San Francisco Giants fans can now exhale: pending a judge’s approval, wunderkind starting pitcher Tim Lincecum agreed last week to a $250 fine in exchange for reduced marijuana possession charges and will be able to avoid an embarrassing court appearance.

Lincecum, a 25-year-old starter whose unorthodox body movement has earned him a Cy Young Award and the affectionate nickname “The Freak,” was putting his noted ambidexterity to good use—steering wheel in one hand and pipe in the other—when a Washington state traffic cop pulled him over for speeding on October 30. Lincecum, who lives outside Seattle, meekly surrendered his modest 3.3 grams to the officer and has since accepted the charge of possessing marijuana paraphernalia, a civil infraction rather than a misdemeanor.

In this case it’s not hard to imagine that local law enforcement might go easy on a hometown hero like Lincecum. He played for Washington State in college and gives off an endearingly goofy stoner vibe: Spicoli with a 95-mph fastball. However, the officials involved maintain that Lincecum’s baseball stardom doesn’t work for or against him. Country prosecutor Grant Hansen told the Clark County Columbian, “We negotiated the case in the manner we do with just about every first-time marijuana-drug paraphernalia case where the individual is cooperative with the officer…The fact he’s a celebrity doesn’t mean he doesn’t get the same deal.”

One explanation is that Americans just don’t care about marijuana anymore, but consider this: last February, revered fishboy Michael Phelps got slapped with a three-month suspension from swimming and lost two major sponsorship contracts on the basis of a photo that most college students would hardly bother to detag (it featured Phelps getting hot and heavy with a bong). Lincecum, who was actually arrested, has so far faced decidedly more mellow consequences.

Maybe it takes eight gold medals before people start to care what you do with your free time, or maybe baseball is too busy worrying about steroids to get worked up about a little off-season recreation. Either way, although the Giants have yet to release any official comment on the incident, they will no doubt remind their star pitcher to save his most blazing speeds for the mound.

His hair was full of secrets
Any athlete who hopes to get off easy on drug-related indiscretions but lacks a winning combination of success, charm, and freakish physique might take a page from the playbook of countless steroid-poppers and try this line: “My trainer must have put it in my protein shake.”

At least, that general strategy worked for tennis great Andre Agassi. News broke on October 28—thanks to an ESPN reporter’s later-rescinded tweet about Agassi’s upcoming biography—that Agassi was hooked on crystal meth for the better part of 1997 and got away with it scot-free. Apparently, he claimed after testing positive that he must have accidentally drunk a soda his assistant had spiked with the drug. The ATP let him off with a warning, and, since no violation was ever officially declared, the positive test result wasn’t announced.

There has certainly been more of a reaction to Agassi’s meth confession than to Tim Lincecum’s run-in with Mary Jane. Other tennis players haven’t exactly pulled their punches; unimpressed that Agassi lied about his drug use, Martina Navratilova cuttingly remarked that “he’s up there with Roger Clemens as far as I’m concerned.” The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an independent organization affiliated with the International Olympic Committee that coordinates doping rules and testing across all sports and countries, has called on the ATP to further investigate the incident, on the stated grounds that “our task is to protect the clean athletes and to make sure that these sorts of things don’t recur.” But really, now—the man has already confessed to hating tennis and wearing a hairpiece; to keep digging for more dirt at this point would seem to be in bad taste.

What’s more, it’s not that hard to understand why a player known for rebellious behavior who was then severely depressed and floundering in his career (at an all-time low of 141 in the ATP rankings) might try an illegal pick-me-up to get his groove back. What is more intriguing is that Agassi’s drug use went unpunished and unmentioned by his sport’s governing body. As Katie Couric incredulously phrased it in a November 8 interview with Agassi on 60 Minutes, “I can’t believe they believed you. That’s sort of like ‘the dog ate my homework,’ don’t you think?” to which Agassi sheepishly replied, “Yeah…very few people make mistakes that big and get a second chance.”

Dazed and confusing
In fact, most athletes don’t get a second chance whether they conclusively make the mistake or not. In 2007, another well-respected tennis player, Martina Hingis, retired rather than battle a two-year ban from play when she tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon. In May of this year, Richard Gasquet received the same penalty for the same test results. Both adamantly maintain their innocence; in her official statement at the time, Hingis added that, “I would think that it would be impossible for anyone to maintain the coordination required to play top class tennis while under the influence of drugs.”

Hingis’s point speaks to a fundamental confusion at play: there are no clear standards in tennis or other sports that explain which substances are performance-enhancing or not, and what the respective consequences for their use should be. WADA requires in its 2009 World Anti-Doping Code that a substance must meet two out of three criteria to make it onto the Prohibited List. If a drug “has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance…represents an actual or potential health risk to the Athlete… [or] …violates the spirit of sport described in the Introduction to the Code,” then it’s officially not kosher. What the Code notably fails to do is define those criteria in a clear or useful way. In fact, the aforementioned description of the “spirit of sport” includes the item “fun and joy,” which would seem to be begging for a creative interpretation.

To Agassi, at least, these distinctions are worth making. He told Couric, “When somebody takes a performance inhibitor, a recreational drug, the one thing I would hope is not that there aren’t rules that need to be followed, but along with that would come some compassion, that maybe this person doesn’t need condemnation.” When the rules that need to be followed are as fuzzy as WADA’s seem to be, it’s no wonder that responses to athletic drug use are so wildly unpredictable. For now, the best approach for athletes who find themselves caught with a compromising substance on hand is probably to appeal to the American sense of magnanimous sportsmanship, which can forgive a foolish mistake much more easily than a calculated attempt to beat the system. Go ahead and get high, we say, as long you don’t try to get ahead.

The only thing RACHEL SANDERS B’10 finds truly upsetting is that the mullet was a weave all along.