October 30, 2003

No Longer a Fairy Tale

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I was looking forward to writing about basketball this week. Just like the start of every sport’s season, the 2003-2004 NBA campaign is chock full of juicy storylines.

Can LeBron save the Cavaliers, average a triple-double, win rookie of the year, quarterback the Browns to the Super Bowl, cure cancer, and bring lasting stability to Iraq?

Is Glenn Robinson the viable scoring complement to Iverson that Philadelphia has been waiting for?

Who will get injured first – Antonio McDyess or Marcus Camby?

Will Mark Cuban confuse Antoine with Antawn?

Can Hubie Brown pull a Jack McKeon and lead the Grizzlies to the promised land?

Can the Lakers pull a Yankees and win the championship with a roster of Hall of Fame mercenaries? Oh, wait …

What hideous color will Kobe’s suit be at his next hearing?

Actually, I hesitate to even mention Kobe, as that horse has long since been flogged to death. The media circus surrounding Bryant will surpass that of the O.J. trial when all is said and done, and I do not wish to add to it by devoting the balance of this or any subsequent column to the case.

Still, something happened last week that bothered me. I realized that I am a hypocrite.

They cheered him. The crowd at the Staples Center gave Kobe a rousing ovation as he ran onto the court. They were praising the adulterer.

“What the hell is going on?” I shouted through the darkness to no one in particular, because no one in my house will watch the 2 a.m. SportsCenter with me.

I struggled to get my mind around this. He cheated on his wife, publicly admitted to doing so, tarnished the promise of an all but charmed season, betrayed his fan base and his teammates, and last but clearly not least, may have committed rape? And the L.A. fans cheered him like a hero. Were Rasheed Wallace and Damon Stoudamire handing out brownies to the crowd during the shootaround?

But then, it hit me. I realized why they clapped and held up supportive “We (Heart) Kobe” signs — they want him to be innocent. They want all of this to be a terrible misunderstanding and for Kobe to live up to his formerly squeaky-clean image, the one that sold all those No. 8 jerseys and won those championship rings. They believe in the mystique of the stars.

So do I. And we are all wrong.

There was something else on SportsCenter last week that bothered me; this is where the hypocrisy rears its ugly head. Reports surfaced that over 40 professional athletes, including Olympic track stars as well as MLB and NFL players, were under subpoena in an investigation involving a new steroid, THG. The release of some of the names left me feeling as though the shooting guard of my favorite basketball team was on trial for rape — Marion Jones, Bill Romanowski, Jason Giambi, and Barry Bonds.

Olympic sports have become nearly synonymous with drug scandals and though this angers me more than I can rationally describe, it is nevertheless true. Thus, it comes as no shock to see a few sprinters and shot-putters on the subpoena list. We all know that Romo has some supplement issues, so no surprise there.

But Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds? Say it ain’t so. Please.

Baseball is the only major professional sport that does not screen for steroids, though it was a hot-button topic during the negotiations for the last collective bargaining agreement. This allows baseball to preserve its pastoral reputation and mythological hold on its fans. They live in a cloud for seven months every year, enchanted by endless emerald fields, the smell of leather in the summer sun, and the poetic sound of bat hitting ball.

Baseball fans are all eight years old, even those of us who are 21. You play catch with your dad and you bring your glove to the ballpark and your eyes get wide when you see your first fastball from the stands and you catch a foul ball and you wear your hat until it falls apart and your mother throws it away and you’re hooked for life. You don’t want to hear a former player say that 60 percent of the league is on ‘roids and you don’t want to see pictures of how skinny Bonds was when he played for the Pirates.

I want them all to be innocent. I want to see Bonds reach 756 home runs without having to squeeze out a urine sample after every at bat. I want to see Marion Jones win five gold medals in Athens next summer without having to answer questions about how she got her six-pack.

But it’s a fairy tale. Even though no athletes have been charged with any kind of wrongdoing as yet, the subpoenas cast shadows across the sports landscape that may never be erased. The investigation gives credence to the dark little doubts we’ve all had about the integrity of our athletic heroes. This case has the potential to snowball into the largest drug scandal in sports history. Olympic committees and league commissioners are considering lifetime bans for positive tests and are pushing to test frozen urine samples from several years ago. Medals might be revoked, record books wiped clean, and idols cast down from their pedestals. The kicker here is that the dopers have already moved on to the next undetectable designer steriod.

Victor Conte, the administrator of BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-Op) at the center of this mess, maintains that the used syringe of THG that was anonymously sent to the USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) did not originate in his labs. Every last subpoenaed athlete who has been quoted publicly says that their relationship with Conte was purely fitness-related. Such an across-the-board denial suggests that someone is lying about something. Bonds’s attorney Mike Rains said, “they can run around and say that this stuff’s terrible, and it enhances performance. But the question is, have they banned it? If they haven’t caught up with it, presumably it is still legal.”

What does that mean? It’s okay to cheat until you get caught? Why would he even say something like that if Bonds is supposedly clean? “They” haven’t caught up with “it” because the chemists making mountains of money off performance-enhancers like THG are light-years ahead of the chemists living off government subsidies who are chasing them. And, guess what? This past Tuesday, the FDA made THG illegal and warned of dangerous side-effects. So, yes Mike, the stuff is banned and it is illegal and it is terrible. Have fun on December 4 when Bonds goes on the stand.

And soon after, Kobe will go on the stand for something completely unrelated yet equally as damaging to professional sports.

Athletes in every sport cheat in one way or another and no amount of platitudes and anecdotes about wide-eyed kids getting autographs can change that fact. They stick needles in their veins and pop pills down their throats and they drag the games we love through the mud. They’re not innocent. We’re all guilty of believing the fairy tale.

I really was looking forward to writing about basketball this week. I was looking forward to writing about sports for the rest of the year, in fact. Because, to me, sports are the one good and pure thing, the bright shining beacon we can aspire to when the rest of the world doesn’t make any sense. But where do I go when sports start looking like real life?

Archived article by Per Ostman