Fool Me Once: Can MLB Point FIFA In The Right Direction?

My original intent in writing this article was to make some sort of grand argument about the benefits of the intense media (and fan) scrutiny surrounding doping in baseball. Basically, I wanted to make the pretentious argument that baseball is actually better off as a sport because of the BALCO and Mitchell report crises. But that was before Ryan Braun won his appeal, and before he was “convicted in the court of public opinion,” as one commenter said (despite Larry’s extremely convincing article to the contrary). Now, I’m not so sure whether baseball is better off—this would be a much more interesting, nuanced opinion, but perhaps not one that lends itself to a great article.

My experience dealing with and living through these doping allegations in baseball has conditioned my work in soccer: it’s hard to live through the Mitchell report, the BALCO scandal, and the “end” of the steroid era as an ardent baseball fan and not have it influence the way you look at other sports. So, when some Spanish teams (including my Real Madrid) were implicated in the 2006 Operación Puerto doping case that rocked the cycling world, I figured it was only a matter of time before names started leaking to the press—I was sure that soccer would follow the path of the MLB in the early 2000s.

But it didn’t. And this is despite the fact that disgraced doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, the “mastermind” (or is it “scapegoat”?) behind Operación Purto said, only a few weeks after the case broke, that, “there has been a selective filtration […] the only names that have been released are cyclists.” He went on to insinuate that he had “consulted with” players from a wide variety of sports, including “footballers, tennis players, and athletes” to help them to recover from injuries. Now-disgraced ex-cyclist Jesús Manzano was also insistent that some major soccer players were involved with Fuentes, and French newspaper Le Monde reported extensively on the subject—though FC Barcelona successfully challenged their reports in Spanish court.

In response to some of the allegations during the fallout from Operación Puerto, FIFA President Sepp Blatter (he’s now also a board member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA) decided to consider partnering with the WADA, and to really begin testing players internationally. Only three years earlier, Blatter ridiculed a reporter who dared to ask him about doping: “It’s a nonsense to have doping in football,” Blatter said. “A player with more muscles is not a better football player because what is needed today is skill and not muscle.”

FIFA only began random trials before the World Cup in 2010, and the few trials that occurred before 2010 rarely included blood testing. Over the years, only a handful of players have been stupid enough to be caught by FIFA’s extremely rare testing, and none of them have been stars. Journalists have, in general, shied away from talking about doping; this is due, in part, to the fact that FIFA, and the national federations, have rarely given reports on doping. The only “news” journalists—and fans—have about soccer doping are FIFA’s rare press conferences, which are basically excuses for Sepp Blatter to talk about how amazing he is.

In 2009, FIFA rejected some WADA blood testing rules that would have allowed WADA officials to randomly test star players essentially whenever they wanted. The tests would have occurred at team facilities, and would have involved a minimal amount of time (less than an hour). The obvious question, at least for an MLB Fan of the steroid generation, is this: what are they hiding?

I bring all of this up to highlight a couple of important problems that we face as fans: on one hand, we have the MLB system, wherein players are guilty until proven innocent (and even when they’re proven innocent, they’re still treated like they’re guilty); on the other, we have the FIFA “system” that I’ve just detailed, where officials look the other way, journalists can’t get a story, and witch doctors who aren’t under any supervision really do inject players with animal organs.

The question begging to be asked here is whether there’s another option: are we, as sports fans, condemned to watching games with the specter of doping hanging over us? Are there only two types of sports, ones that have already had doping crises, and others that haven’t had doping crises yet? Are we supposed to sit back and placidly accept the FIFA doctrine that no one would use PED’s in soccer because it’s a skill game, and avert our eyes when we hear about the experimental treatments of Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt?

The minor controversy around the HGH misstatement is fascinating to me, namely because it reveals a major cultural difference between soccer and baseball. A story breaking about a baseball player using HGH to recover from injury could ruin that player’s career, even if it was based on a simple misunderstanding: that player would forever be associated with HGH, and “the court of public opinion” would have already ruled.

In soccer, this type of misstatement could ruin a journalist’s career: players will be reticent to talk to him, professionals within the industry will shy away from discussing treatments, and so on. Neither one of these systems is good: Ryan Braun will be labeled a doper by many, many people, and will potentially lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars because of the damage to his brand, But in soccer, there’s no incentive to out doping stories because if you make one mistake, or if one person decides to dispute your quote, your career could be over.

So, to conclude this extremely long article (and I forgive you for not reading to the end, as I know I can be a mouthful): sports fans are caught in a bit of a double bind. We enjoy sports that have successfully emerged (or are emerging) from doping scandals, but are highly cognizant of, and very quick to judge possible wrong-doers; at the same time, however, we continue to be blissfully unaware of possible doping problems in many other sports because journalists don’t have any incentive to out dopers, and the organizations tend to look the other way.

Is there a way out of this double bind? Maybe higher-intensity screenings, random blood tests, and proper procedure would quell some of our anxiety about doping in all sports. But I tend to be highly pessimistic about the future of any sport that hasn’t experienced a major doping scandal—if only because I don’t ever want to be fooled again.

21 thoughts on “Fool Me Once: Can MLB Point FIFA In The Right Direction?

  1. America is just jealous that the rest of the world's "football" is more popular than America's "football."

  2. Oh look, an immature discussion of the relative popularity of soccer has broken out. As if there's any such conversation that ISN'T immature.

  3. I don't agree with Blatter's comments about doping being ineffective in soccer simply because while it is a game that requires great skill to be successful, aren't ALL sports at the highest levels? As a semi-serious Arsenal fan, I always marvel at the speed, athleticism, and endurance that is displayed. It would be nonsensical to suggest that PED's couldn't help soccer players simply because it's a game that requires skill. PED's aren't simply a way to add muscle MASS, they also can provide performance benefits through targeted training. Olympic sprinters wouldn't be looking to add muscle mass, that would make them slower. But, in a sport where speed is king, we still see former champions disgraced by the stain of steroids.

    I think we can all agree that hitting a baseball requires great skill, yet steroids are purported to have transformed the game in a way that entire careers of the greatest players of this era have been tarnished. I look at it this way. Do I think that Barry Bonds used steroids? Of course I do. Do I think it matters AT ALL? Not even one tiny bit. Yes, he enjoyed a prime that extended FAR past what many players experience, but do I really think he wouldn't have been in the Hall Of Fame anyways? Yeah, I think he would have been. Maybe that's not the best way to view these things, but if we're going to make sweeping comparisons across eras (where some gaps stretch almost a century now), why would steroids be the place I should draw that line? How many pitchers would have been afforded similar career extensions if they had been around during the era of Tommy John surgery? How many players would have seen their playing careers greatly enhanced if they hadn't lost years of their prime to involuntary military service? We have smarter stats now. Stats that adjust for eras, stats that can tell us more than just 762 home runs can. Let's use them.

    I know that's preaching to the proverbial choir around here, but as someone who uses statistics every day of their life (I'm a Quality Engineer), I find it simply mind blowing that in an industry where everything can be measured, to a degree, there are those that would resist the advantages given to them if they would seize the opportunity. In every other industry, they would be filing for bankruptcy. In baseball, that mentality is praised as "Old School Thinking" or "Trusting your eyes".

    • You forgot to mention that soccer is (stupid and unamerican/awesome and better than football) which I thought was the point of this thread.

      • Allow me to be the one to mention that your "American" football is just an adaptation of rugby football and that "soccer" is the original football and thus, the one that properly should be so titled.

        • One more round man. Just one more round of soccer-is-stupid-no-you're-stupid on the internets will FINALLY settle the matter once and for all.

          Good post, by the way. I'm just a little doping-ed out today.

          • I feel like there's a dope-doping joke here, but I don't quite have it yet. I'll get back to you.

        • One question though: are the governing rules for medicinal use of HGH laxer in Europe than they are in America? That could explain part of the disconnect, I suppose, although I for the life of me don't really understand why MLB players need to be prevented from being prescribed HGH for rehab in the event there's a sound medical reason for it.

          • I don't think it's any less stringent in Europe–we unearthed some FIFA documents a couple weeks ago that said it was banned in all cases save for legitimate medical purposes, though the example of that was Leo Messi, Barcelona's (extremely short) midfielder, using HGH when he was younger to try to make him grow a little bit (because he had a deficiency, I think). It must not have worked, though, because he's still short as all hell (aaaand, my completely uncalled for jab at the world's best player has now been taken, and I will retreat into my Real Madrid lair).

  4. I have no issues with athletes taking PEDs to help recovery from injury – it would be unfair to deny them medicine. I do have issues when PEDs are taken over prolonged periods of time, not because it would be cheating*, but because this would constitute a health risk for the athlete. Remember Ronaldo (the original, the better one), he was the best player since Pele, but his knees gave in very early -> it was rumoured that his ligaments were damaged by steroid abuse during his time at PSV.

    Of course PED abuse can make you stronger/faster/more endurant, which will help with anything that deserves to be called a sport, including football, so I agree that Blatter's statement is silly (but then he is known for silly statements :)).

    I don't like MLB's (or many other sports organisations') way of dealing with PED abuse as it's too black & white, and football's sweeping it under the carpet isn't better either. But I am sure we are not the only ones – however, I don't see any other solution than the first.

    *cheating: That's nonsense anyway. You don't cheat by using better facilities than your opponents, you don't cheat by eating better than your opponents, you don't cheat by training more or better – so why would it be cheating to consume better drugs? IIRC the point of prohibiting the use of PEDs isn't to level the competition, but to protect the athletes from possible negative side effects?

    PS: It's not "American Football", it's not even Gridiron, it's Handegg. ;)

    • Well, per cheating, I suppose the argument would be that you're cheating because the other athletes are worried about the negative health effects of the drugs, which is valid but probably overstated. As for rehabbing, I agree. Unless the drugs in question present negative health consequences and the players want to take collective action against their use, I don't for the life of me see the argument against allowing professional athletes to use "PEDs" under professional supervision in the name of healing.

      It's like we forget that sports are part of the entertainment industry sometimes.

      • Well, regarding the health risks: I guess it depends on what you take and for how long. EPO can kill you. There are examples of (female) GDR athletes who were quite changed by hormone doping. And there are examples of athletes who died in action or very young.

  5. There is no question in my mind (for what THAT’S worth) that PEDs can help soccer players play better soccer.With drugs like EPO and practices like blood doping, a soccer player can boost his cardiovascular endurance. Putting it less technically, soccer players can run around faster and longer if they dope.

    There are doubtless other ways that doping can boost performance in soccer, but this is the one that jumps out at me. Ditto, by the way, for tennis players.I have no idea if this actually goes on, so I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but it’s silly to think that soccer is somehow on such a refined plane (like playing concert violin) that performance cannot be enhanced by pharma.

    To address your question: are we, as sports fans, condemned to watching games with the specter of doping hanging over us? Um. Yes. PEDs are not going away; we can simply count on them getting better and (as they more closely mimic natural human biochemistry) more difficult to detect. The bigger question is, how do we react to this? We can take the cycling route, where it’s widely assumed that everyone is cheating and that anti-doping succeeds to an extent in keeping the doping within limits. It’s a pretty cynical fan base. Or we can say, we’re doing all we can to combat doping, and so long as an athlete does not test positive (and Braun did not test positive), we treat him as clean. Human nature being what it is, those of us who try to take the latter stance on the basis of principle will find ourselves increasingly alone.

    • Ironically, I tend to fall into the apathetic camp, despite writing this article (I intended it more to spark a discussion than to condemn doping outright). The problem we face is at what level to care–that is, should we totally look the other way (soccer, NFL) try to root out doping no matter the cost (cycling), or is there a middle ground, something more like what we have in MLB?

      I tend to fall into a fourth option, where I think it's important to at least be cognizant and not naive about PEDs, but ultimately tend to shrug it off when players are "caught". It makes treating players like Ryan Braun fairly easier,I think, but it might allow some players to gain an "unfair" advantage–but I can live with that, as I'm not prepared to launch into questions of "fairness" at this level.

      So do I get annoyed when people pretend that there isn't doping in sports? Sure. But do I deeply care about some sort of grand doping problem? Not so much. I just wish people could approach it honestly, try and find a balance between cynicism and naïveté.

      • Strange thing is I've never thought about the issue at all in relation to football, rugby or any team sports really, where I most emphatically have done in individual sports, especially athletics, for many years, before even Ben Johnson, when the East German "women" were ruling the roost in all the explosive events.

        The potential use in baseball is similarly a matter of indifference if I think about it, the only difference being that the awareness level is significantly higher because of the publicity.

        That is not to say, mind, that baseball is the only sport that has testing programmes. Plenty of rugby players worldwide, of both codes of the game, have been found to have doped in some way and been banned as a result. Rio Ferdinand, the Manchester United defender, was banned for ages (a year?) a good while back just for missing a test. It's just that there's not so much hysteria over the matter at the moment, perhaps because the notion that PED use is routine and widespread is not out there where it is in baseball.

  6. While I agree with the general sentiment with the essay, that we're fans of sports with or about to have PEDs, I disagree with the view of how we should treat Ryan Braun as completely innocent because of the specifics of his case. He won his appeal because a lab tech held his sample for 44 hours at home. Now, while his sample may have been degraded, it doesn't also add testosterone to the sample. And I'm assuming that there was no nefarious plot by the lab tech because frankly, what would be the motivation? We are fickle fans in baseball that can't wait to pounce on the next steroid allegation, but even if we weren't, I still wouldn't be surprised about the abuse Braun'll get next season

    • Hubert, both Brien and I have discussed this at great length in other posts here — if you read through the comments section you'll see the lengths we've gone to. Since you've made general arguments, I'll reply with general arguments. Braun won his case because MLB was required under the rules to prove that Braun doped, and they were unable to do so. Proof of doping requires MLB to follow a specified, validated testing procedure. MLB deviated from this procedure by not following its own rules for sample handling and shipment. You're right that the sample may have degraded, but you're wrong if you think anyone can precisely describe the nature of that degradation or what the effect of that degradation might have been on Braun's sample. Testosterone is an organic molecule that is produced via metabolism of other organic molecules; it can be created, and it is broken down into metabolites. The labs don't measure testosterone per se; they measure the metabolites. You may doubt whether the degradation of Braun's urine would create net additional testosterone metabolites from organic molecules present in the sample when it was given, and I think most people would agree with you there, though we can't know for certain. However, there's every reason to suspect the breakdown of epitestosterone metabolites during the 44 hour storage period, and no particular reason to believe that testosterone and epistestosterone metabolites must break down at the same rate. Since what we're talking about here is a RATIO, you'd have to consider both sets of metabolites.

      I don't take seriously the discussion of tampering. Try this experiment. Buy a carton of milk. Open and taste it. Yum. Close the carton, seal it with an entire roll of duck tape, and leave it on your kitchen counter for a month.Then unseal and open the carton. Voila! It changed. Bet you don't want to drink it now. Did someone tamper with the milk? Maybe. It doesn't matter. What matters is, you didn't store the milk properly.