Better Living Through Chemistry
I was an official one day at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Ogden, Utah. When the U.S. Women’s Curling Team came off the ice after a game, I was assigned to follow one of the players around until she felt ready to present a urine sample. She yakked with friends and fans, made a cell phone call, downed some bottled water and smoked a cigarette. Eventually, she went into the lounge where the World Anti-Doping Agency had set up shop and my brief officialdom came to an end. I was introduced to her friends as “my watcher” and was uncomfortable the whole time. But in life, you do what you are asked to do.
Olympic athletes are required to make known their whereabouts at all times to the Anti-Doping Agency and are subject to testing 24/7 with no notice. That can mean a rap on the door at three in the morning wherever they are in the world and being told to pee in a bottle—or else.
Curling is a head game—chess on ice is what it has been called—rather than a contest of brute strength, speed and instant reflexes, so the athletes have no reason to take drugs. But ever since it became a medal sport in 1998, curlers must play by Olympic rules.
In professional sports, the anti-doping rules on the books sound mighty tough.
What is going on is a secret game within the games.
Corporate America was rocked with scandals during 2005 and 2006 that saw high-flying CEOs personally broken and sent to live out their last years in jail. The net may be closing on sports figures.
The message for all of us to remember: If you engage in aberrant behavior, chances are you will be caught.
In some sports you get off with a shrug and a wink.
In others, you face ruin.
The Secret Game Within the Games
In sports today, drug usage seems to be the secret game within the games: “My drug designer is smarter than your anti-doping analysts.”
In his notorious book, “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big,” outfielder Jose Conseco maintains that 75 percent of all major league ball players were on steroids during the years that he was an active player.
When I was growing up, professional athletes were poorly paid by today’s standards. The stories of the great stars begging New York Yankees General Manager George Weiss for a few thousand more dollars are heartbreaking. Weiss had a salary budget, and if he had money left over it was his to keep.
When they outlived their usefulness to the game, those players who did not go into coaching, managing or the team’s front office, went on to become car salesmen, storekeepers or personnel managers.
For them the big event of the year was Old Timer’s Day. They would show up in town for a banquet and then squeeze into their old uniform to be recognized on the field and—if in any kind of shape—play an inning or two in a pick-up game. Watching the Dodgers or Yankees in the stands or on TV, jerks like me would get misty-eyed at seeing DiMag, Yogi, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo and, of course, Jackie Robinson, with the ceremonies emceed by Hall of Fame announcers Mel Allen or Red Barber.
Why Break the Rules? Greed.
Today the money for sports stars is stratospheric, with salaries augmented by endorsements and merchandise. Soccer superstar David Beckham has a $160.1 million lifetime arrangement with Adidas. Tiger Woods has a $100 million deal with Nike over the next five years. While still a teenager, basketball sensation LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers cut a seven-year deal with Nike worth $90 million.
When an athlete has the choice of retiring with millions or selling used cars for the rest of his life, the temptation to use chemistry to go for big bucks trumps common sense.
“There are many legal ways to get better at sport, from sleeping in an oxygen tent, to living at altitude, to doing lots of exercise,” states an editorial in Friday’s Financial Times. “Tour de France riders drug their bodies with a plate of pasta every morning.”
But the characters in the secret cat-and-mouse game within the games are pharmaceutical researchers continually coming up with new and exotic “designer drugs” that are increasingly difficult to detect under current testing standards. It has become the pharmaceutical researchers vs. the anti-dopers figuring out how to detect them.
In the middle are the greedy athletes.
The Sad Saga of Mark McGuire
In 1998, when Mark McGuire was age 34 and playing with the St. Louis Cardinals, he hit an unbelievable 70 home runs, blowing away Roger Maris’ long-standing record of 61 and the legendary Babe Ruth’s 60. The following year, McGuire belted 65 homers. It has been estimated that McGuire was 30 to 40 pounds heavier at the end of his career than at the beginning. The reason was thought to be steroid usage.
In March 2005, McGuire testified before the House Government Reform Committee and was asked if he had taken performance-enhancing drugs. “Asking me or any other player to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve the problem,” he said. “My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family and myself. I intend to follow their advice.”
When asked again, he responded, “I’m not here to discuss the past,” and “I’m here to be positive about this subject.”
At the hearing, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), who had been a Hall of Fame pitcher in the 1950s and 1960s said in his testimony:
When I played with Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Ted Williams, they didn’t put on 40 pounds... and they didn’t hit more home runs in their late thirties as they did in their late twenties. What’s happening in baseball is not natural, and it’s not right... If they started in 1992 or ‘93 illegally using steroids, wipe all their records out. Take them away. They don’t deserve them.
McGuire’s brilliant record will always be controversial and the game of baseball forever tainted.
The Barry Bonds Conundrum
“Hammerin’ Hank, he’s right behind you now,” was the lead in a July 28 story by the AP’s Janie McCauley about San Francisco Giants’ left fielder, Barry Bonds, hitting his 754th home run. One more homer and Hank Aaron’s record is tied. One more after that, and Aaron is a has-been.
The prospect of Bonds breaking Aaron’s record should be a cause for celebration of excellence, up there with Roger Bannister running a mile in under 4 minutes on May 5, 1954 before 3,000 spectators in Oxford, England.
Instead, the feat is regarded with dread in many quarters because of the widespread belief that Bonds has been stoked on steroids for years, even though he has never tested positive and has avowed that he never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is dithering. He is following Bonds around like a groupie, because he feels he should be at the park when the historic hit happens, but has not said whether he will participate in the on-field celebration.
Bonds, meanwhile, is jubilant. Go to his Web site (www.barrybonds.com) and you land on an ad for the “Official Barry Bonds Home Run Tracker,” a special cell phone bling on the Sprint and AT&T Networks providing exclusive content to those who sign-up. On the landing page are a letter from Barry, a video and links to Bonds’ Journal, online store, photo gallery, stats, news and a multimedia show.
The contretemps has gotten ugly. Sports Illustrated’s Jonah Freedman called Bonds’ personality “pricklier than a saguaro cactus.” On last week’s edition of HBO’s “Costas Now” with Bob Costas, pitcher Curt Shilling and chemist Patrick Arnold said they were sure Bonds had taken steroids. Bonds called Costas “a little midget who knows jack-shit about baseball.”
Costas shot back, “As anyone can plainly see, I’m 5-6 1/2 and a strapping 150, and unlike some people, I came by all of it naturally.”
Sports Illustrated estimates that Bonds annually takes in $2 million in endorsement income (from Fila and batting-glove manufacturer Franklin), appearance fees and memorabilia. Were the steroid cloud not over his head, Bonds’ extra-curricular loot could easily be $30 million a year.
A tantalizing sidebar to the Barry Bonds brouhaha is a debate over the tax liability of the fan who catches the ball that breaks Aaron’s record. According to Peter Lattman in The Wall Street Journal, some CPAs (and presumably the government) maintain that “it’s taxable income to the fan the instant that person catches the ball because it’s ‘accession to wealth.’ This view logically stems from cases saying that someone who finds a ‘treasure trove’ owes tax on it right away.” Imagine some 12-year-old kid thrilled to have caught modern baseball’s ultimate home run ball and the following week receiving a bill from the IRS for $200,000.
The Sad Saga of the Tour de France
For years allegations of doping have plagued the world’s greatest bike race. This year, the event ended in ruins. Cristian Moreni of Italy failed a drug test and was axed; the Astana team quit after it was discovered Alexander Vinokourov had a probable blood transfusion; the T-Mobile team withdrew after a drug screening; and the leader, Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, was sent packing after violating internal team rules. Meanwhile, sponsors are thinking about pulling out—Adidas, Deutsche Telekom and a subsidiary of Volkswagen.
To add insult to idiocy, Irish bookie Paddy Power announced, “The Tour De France is descending into a Tour De Farce, so we will be refunding bets on any rider who is suspended for a failed drugs test between now and the end of the tour.”
The Epic Sleaze of the Media
Readers of my work over the years know that I have contempt for the media and their proclivity for making news rather than reporting it.
This past week broadcast, print and Web journalists have linked the doping debacle in baseball and bicycling with the alleged dog fighting charges against the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and the alleged game-fixing/point-shaving/betting by NBA referee Tim Donaghy.
This is flatly dishonest journalism.
The business of doping is serious, nasty and a horrible example for the world’s young people who idolize athletes. The use of performance-enhancing drugs cheats other athletes and cheats the fans. It has the potential of cutting across all sports. And, sadly, the athletes themselves—including those who have been cheated—are trying mightily to cover it up and hoping it will go away.
For example, just prior to baseball’s All-Star Game in early July, a federal case surfaced in which a former New York Mets employee, Kirk Radomski, admitted to selling steroids to a legion of major league players over the years all across the country. When Radomski’s plea agreement was made public, the names of the players were blacked out. The Major League Baseball Players Association—the union—announced it will join the government in fighting to keep the names secret.
The government’s reason for secrecy is to protect an ongoing investigation. The players want to protect their own.
This is the story.
On the other hand, the Michael Vick and Tim Donaghy allegations most likely represent one-off deviant behavior by men in activities totally unrelated to each other.
It was pure coincidence that the Vick, Donaghy and doping stories happened to break during the same week.
Lumping all these events together is easy, lazy journalism—a cheap shot by the mischievous mainstream media that is happy to mislead the public in order to sell papers and generate the kind of controversy that results in advertising.
If the Vick and Donaghy allegations prove true, these guys are toast. They will face jail and their careers will be ruined. Vick already has lost millions in endorsements when Reebok and Nike fired him last week. The remainder of their lives will be spent trying to outrun their infamy, which will remain in perpetuity on the Internet long after they are dead.
Put another way, baseball, cycling and very likely a host of other sports have a drug problem.
The NFL does not have a dog-fighting problem. The NBA no longer has a referee problem, because all potentially corrupt referees will lay very low and be clean as a hound’s tooth in the future.
In short, the teams and fans of the NFL and NBA have no reason to feel collective shame over the individual actions of a couple of alleged bad-asses.
It is the media that should be ashamed of themselves.
Follow-up on a Prior Story: Where are they now?
The July 7, 2005 edition of Business Common Sense—”Clang, Clang, Clang Goes the Lockdown”—was devoted to the corporate world’s version of doping—the crimes of top executives of a number of major American corporations. A gaggle of obscenely rich miscreants used their publicly-held corporations—of which they were top executives—as private piggy banks, costing their stockholders and employees billions. All will be very old men when they get out of jail—if they don’t die in jail first. Their current dispositions:
• Bernard Ebbers, 65, former chairman of WorldCom—currently serving 25 years at the Yazoo City Federal Correctional Complex, Miss.
• Dennis Kozlowski, 59, former CEO of Tyco—currently serving 8-1/3 to 25 years in the Mid-State Correctional Facility, Marcey, N.Y.
• Ken Lay, 64, founder of Enron—cheated the jailers by assuming room temperature on July 5, 2006 before he was sentenced.
• Joseph Nacchio, 58, former CEO of Qwest Communications—sentenced last week to six years in prison.
• John Rigas, 80, founder of Adelphia Communications Corp.—lost his appeal and will begin serving a 15-year sentence Aug. 13, 2007.
• Timothy J. Regas, 51, son of John Rigas and former CFO of Adelphia Communications Corp.—lost his appeal and will begin serving a 20-year sentence Aug. 13, 2007.
• Jeffrey Skilling, 53, CEO of Enron—is serving 24 years, four months in the Federal Correctional Institution, Waseca, Minn.
- Babe Ruth
- Barry Bonds
- Bob Costas
- Bud Selig
- Carl Furillo
- Curt Shilling
- David Beckham
- George Weiss
- Hammerin Hank
- Henry Aaron
- Jackie Robinson
- Janie McCauley
- Jim Bunning
- Jonah Freedman
- Jose Conseco
- Kirk Radomski
- LeBron James
- Mark McGuire
- Mel Allen
- Michael Vick
- Patrick Arnold
- Pee Wee Reese
- Roger Bannister
- Roger Maris
- Ted Williams
- Tiger Woods
- Tim Donaghy
- Willie Mays
- Ogden, Utah