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.