There are a lot of things I hear about through the media grapevine that don’t surprise me.
See: Alex Rodriguez allegedly owning a painting of himself depicted as a centaur. See: Manny Ramirez testing positive for a female fertility drug. See: Sammy Sosa claiming a cosmetic cream caused his skin tone to lighten by about three shades.
Andre Agassi using crystal meth and lying about his positive drug test to the ATP, now that surprised me. The fact that he actually admitted to it, doubly so.
For one, Andre never struck me as one who would be into recreational drugs. It’s kind of like picturing Eli “I-look-like-I’m-still-in-high-school” Manning doing crystal meth. Furthermore, Agassi is no Jose Canseco –– meaning he certainly doesn’t need the money, and surely his book would have garnered solid readership even without the more sensational aspects. In fact, there’s nothing he stood to gain from confessing these prior indiscretions, besides the purging of a guilty conscience. Which I guess for some people is incentive enough. But now the cat’s out of the bag and the sports world –– as it’s prone to do in the midst of any scandal –– has been weighing in.
Just this week former No. 1-ranked (and newly retired) Marat Safin, affectionately known in tennis circles as the “Crazy Russian,” said in an interview that Agassi should give back his titles, prize money and Grand Slam titles; in other words, all the tangible tokens of his illustrious, 21-year career.
I’m inclined to disagree.
The crux of my problem? I don’t know why I disagree.
While crystal meth is not a performance-enhancing drug in the way of HGH and EPO, had Agassi admitted his guilt at the time, he would have been served (no pun intended) with a three-month suspension. Just for comparison’s sake, this past March French tennis sensation Richard Gasquet tested positive for cocaine and was promptly hit with a two-year ban from the sport. Although Gasquet was later reinstated after it was determined that he had inadvertently ingested the drug after kissing a woman at a Miami nightclub, he missed three months’ playing time on the tour, including two Grand Slam events. And he was innocent.
Agassi, on the other hand, knowingly used crystal meth, and then lied about it to tennis’s governing body. As much as I take issue with the ATP on numerous occasions, betraying their trust is just not cool.
However, deep down I think I know the real reason why I don’t judge him in the same manner that I judge Marion Jones, Floyd Landis and our good friend Sammy Sosa, not to mention the countless other athletes who have fallen from grace:
I actually like Andre Agassi.
And it’s not just me –– anyone who appreciates tennis likes Andre Agassi. Heck, anyone who calls himself/herself a fan of sport in general likes Andre Agassi. In him, we have one of the most colorful and humble personalities ever to set foot on a tennis court, one who epitomizes the definition of an athlete. Those in doubt need look no further than his epic, 3-hour-48-minute five-set match against Marcos Baghdatis in the second round of the 2006 U.S. Open. The 36-year-old Agassi required a cortisone shot for his back pain just to make it onto the court. The pain was so intense that after the match, which ended well past midnight, he couldn’t even make it to the locker room without stopping and laying on his back for a three-minute rest.
I was fortunate enough to be present for the last match of Agassi’s professional career, which incidentally came one round later at that same Open. And I can honestly say, his post-match on-court speech, devoted entirely to the fans, was one of the most earnest, poignant monologues I had ever heard. Looking around Arthur Ashe Stadium, I saw grown men crying, actual tears. At the time, I was at a loss to think of a single sports icon that had managed to provoke such unchecked emotion. To this day, I probably still couldn’t name one.
The prevailing sentiment, shared by everyone except fellow tennis pros, seems to be along the lines of: “Yes, what Andre did was shady and conniving, but everyone makes mistakes, and he had the decency to own up to his, even if it was 12 years after the fact. He’s still no Roger Clemens (despite what Martina Navratilova might say). Now let’s dismiss this minor transgression, move on, and find someone else to publicly crucify. Dwight Howard seems like a good candidate.”
Double standard much? Damn straight.
Truth be told, the sports world is ripe with double standards. Just look at Manny Ramirez’s tenure with the Boston Red Sox as one example. In Game 5 of the 2007 ALCS, Manny wrongly assumed he had hit a home run, and thus had to be content with a long single –– all because he refused to run out of the batter’s box. Then there was the time Manny disappeared into the Green Monster in between innings, only to emerge after Curt Schilling had already thrown a pitch to the opposing team. But no one called him out on it; after all, this was merely a prime example of “Manny being Manny.”
Meanwhile, the one at-bat where Jimmy Rollins didn’t run out a routine ground ball, Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel benched him for a game.
But even this doesn’t compare to the double standard Agassi now finds himself a part of, because it’s his legacy at stake –– not just an offending headline on SI.com.
We will never entertain the thought of forgiving Barry Bonds, yet when we look at Andre Agassi, we see the same man who, when asked by a 17-year-old Andy Roddick what his biggest regret was, responded that it was not starting his charitable foundation early enough. The unfortunate truth of the matter is, the two might have more in common than we care to admit.
Looking at this Agassi debacle from the outside, it’s like the Mitchell Report all over again. Okay, so maybe not, but my reaction to it is highly comparable. I didn’t need to know that Andy Pettitte took human growth hormone, just as I didn’t need to know that Andre Agassi used crystal meth ... and wore a wig all those years after his hair started falling out at age 17.
But now I know, and there goes my blissful ignorance.