What a year for sports do far. And not in the good way.

I was watching Marion Jones’ tearful apology yesterday on TV, and realized that cheating is so widespread in sports nowadays, it is a wonder athletes even feel compelled to apologize at all. Everyone seems to be doing it, and if these are the role models for those with aspirations, we could be in a lot of trouble.

Let’s begin with baseball, the American sport. From Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier to the mighty Yankee teams to the great home run chase in 1998, this was supposed to be a sport that inspired and reflected the values that we hold so sacred to our heritage. But now the past is just shrouded in a mist of controversy and unsettling discoveries that leave us wincing as even the most pressing of questions are being answered.

We know Cameneti, the AL MVP, did steroids, and paid with his life. Jose Conseco told us steriod use was widespread. Baseball, and us, turned a blind eye. Then came the suspected users, and the BALCO investigation began. McGwire, a future hall of famer, went in front of Congress, and couldn’t deny using performance enhancing drugs. So testing began.

First it was the small fish, beginning with Alex Sanchez, an obscure pitcher for the lowly Devil Rays. Then MLB announced 38 minor leaguers tested positive, resulting in suspensions. Palmeiro, another potential hall of famer, denied using PEDs, wagging his finger at Congress, but tests found a serious steroid, stanozolol, in his system. Federal IRS agents raided pitcher Jason Grimsley’s home, collecting enough evidence to get Jason to name names. Those names? The best pichter of the last 30 years, Roger Clemens. The best shortstop in the game, Miguel Tejada. And a clutch postseaon veteran pitcher Andy Pettite. Not quite small fish at all, even if they were just names (for now).

Which brings us to 2007. Bond’s record breaking season, where he became baseball’s all time home run leader. And did anyone out of San Francisco care? Well, yes, because of the allegations of PED’s. We debated whether the commissoner should be present, whether Hank Aaron had an obligation to be there. While one of the most hallowed records in sports, Bond’s quest was not met with enthuasiasm, but disgust.

But there was a silver lining, in a player named Rick Ankiel. Once a promising young pitcher in the major leagues in 2000, one day he just couldn’t pitch anymore. Really. He hit batters left and right, throwing five wild pitches in one inning. Demoted to the minor leagues, he disappeared. And then there were rumours he was trying to make it as a hitter. This August, some seven years later after making his mark as a pitcher, he was called up by the Cardinals, and on his first day hit a three run homer. Two days later, he went 3-4 at the plate with two homers. As he slugged his way to a remarkable comeback, he was deemed “the Natural,” a true feel good story for the season. But then news broke that Ankiel received HGH shipments from January to December 2004. He claimed vehemently the drugs were prescribed for his recovery from Tommy John surgery, and technically baseball only banned HGH in 2005, but it was too late. This savior, this “natural”, was to many just another athlete who misled us and was willing to use drugs to get ahead.

The BALCO investigation led us Marion Jones, the Olympic sprinter who won five gold medals. She denied the charges, to the point of mocking the media. But this week she admitted to cheating, offering a tearful apology to the fans, her family, and her country. She gave up her medals, but the harm done to her sport, the USA, and her fellow competitors is irreparable. The feeling of earning a gold medal can not be emulated after the fact, and while her Olympic competitors may gain the medals back, it can only be a bittersweet justice.

Marion isn’t the only Olympic gold medalist accused of cheating. Justin Gaitlin, the gold medalist who tied the World Record time in the 100 m with a 9.77. But he, as well as seven other athletes under track coach Trevor Graham, have been found with illegal substances in their bloodstream. Gaitlin is currently serving an eight year ban from the sport. This spring, he tried out for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in an effort to be a wide receiver in the NFL.

Which is only appropriate, because if there is one sport that continues to ignore cheating, it is football. Players are getting bigger and faster, and its not just hard work that gets them there. Look at Bill Romanowksi, a linebacker who won four Super Bowls. A “nutrition nut,” He is best remembered for his on field altercations, no doubt fueled by the drugs he used. These included breaking a quarterback’s jaw, kicking a player in the head, spitting in a player’s face, tossing a football into a player’s groin, and even punching a teammate (dislocating his eye socket and ending his career). And his reward? He was deemed a perennial Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer. He later admitted he did steroids and human growth hormone, supplied by Victor Conte, the same man identified by the FBI in the case against Bonds. Does this admission show up on his Wikipedia page? No, it passes over this issue entirely – largely reflective of the attitude the NFL has taken. Sure, they test players, and occasionally some get snared, such as the NFL defensive player of the year Shawn Merriman, or the Patriot’s Rodney Harrison. Merriman even missed 4 games last year due to serving out his penalty – yet was still voted into the Pro Bowl. If the league and the fans won’t hold players accountable for such actions, why should bother policing themselves? Any high school football player would admit that they witness fellow players taking performance enhancers, proving that it never is too early to start to valuing the rewards over the risk. Of course, there are other ways to cheat in the NFL, as the Patriots proved when they were caught videotaping the Jets. Once again, the NFL put their business interests first, by allowing the infractor (Coach Belichick) to remain on the sideline coaching for the entire season, and, when they requested all tapes be handed over, destroyed them all quickly, claiming there was nothing to see. (Huh? If that doesn’t reek of a coverup, I don’t know what would.)

The United States also managed to join the rest of the cycling community when Floyd Landis was found with illegal substances in his system after winning the Tour de France. While cycling greats Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich were pulled from the Tour de France for doping, the US looked like it had the rare clean winners in Lance Armstrong and Landis. But no sooner were we celebrating his termendous achievement, then Landis, too, like all the others before him, was just another dirty winner. After mutiple appeals, all rejected, Landis as of today has only one more (in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport) with which to clean his name.

The spotlight on the drugs these athletes abuse extends even to such sports as wrestling, where steroid use is considered part of the job. The tragic death of Chris Benoit, of whom I wrote about earlier, highlighted the deadly consequences these chemical imbalances could inccur, not only on the individual’s health, but those around them. This week an investigation discovered that the doctor had prescribed too high a dosage of steroids, which contributed the head trauma preceding Chris’ murder of his family and suicide. Vince McMahon, in the name of his entertainment business, has done next to nothing to provide awareness of the danger his entertainers/athletes may be in, while we continue to tune in on our TVs.

And it is not as if it is hard to get steroids. ESPN published a story this month, where they detailed their efforts to set up a phony supplements company to try to procure such performance enhancers. Once they got in touch with a supplier (Florida’s IDS Sports) they were quickly able to place an order for what the contact described as “highly androgenic”. Without even showing any identification whatsoever, and forking over $1,000, they were able to receive four boxes of drugs. As the contact promised, the drugs proved negative after even the most rigorous drug tests. LA’s Antu-Doping Research Institute finally took a look, and discovered that the drug, Sostonal, contained Madol, a powerful designer steroid originally developed by BALCO chemist Patrick Arnold. One industry expert claimed, “No one is making this stuff in the U.S. The only place you can get it is China.”

A damning accusation indeed, especially with the Olympics in Beijing ahead in 2008. China has been scrambling to clean up its city for the occasion, banning cars and having its offical Weather Manipulation Office seed the air with chemicals to lift the orange tint from its polluted skies, even if only for a couple of weeks. It has cracked down on drug labs, and issued a law making suppplying any athletes, coaches, or sports federation performance enhancing drugs illegal. We can take for granted that Beijing will not fully solve its pollution problems, but let’s hope their efforts on behalf of producing clean athletes is met with as much rigor.

The bottom line is that cheating in sports has too long been overlooked and forgiven. Track has taken itself seriously, but its athletes continue to be on the cutting edge of new drugs, and push the limits. Baseball still has no standard random blood testing, and largely lives off of its revival from the Home Run Chase years. The NFL rewards its players with Pro Bowls. Cycling is almost defunct as a sport, since the best cyclists are constantly the ones doping and being banned.

When a professor, or author, commits plagerism, punishment is rarely handed out. When a student does, he can be expelled. Students largely refrain from such behavior because of the lack of leverage, and the dire consequences they may face. But it is not in the best interest for universities to take the same stance with those that bring name recognition and money. Therin lies the danger, that students can tune into any sporting event and see the risks being taken and see the rewards so great. It may not happen in college, but at some point, they will be reminded of this lesson, and know that cheating is only wrong when caught, but is more commonplace than playing it straight. Students are taught to bring their talents to an even playing field, but in reality will come across ones that they know are not. And at that moment, knowing that cheating is becoming a way of life, they will make that choice based not on what they ethically believe to be right or wrong, but what the reward could very well be.

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