We're taught from a very young age in this country that speculation is wrong. You're innocent until proven guilty. You have to prove someone is doing something wrong; you can't just tell it like you feel it in your gut. Our justice system is set up on these principles; we have defenses in court that range from insanity to self-defense, appeals from here to Bangladesh, and the notion that even if you know someone is guilty, you can't say it for sure unless there are facts to back it up. Think those 12 men and women on the OJ jury thought the running back didn't kill his wife? That it was someone else? Of course not. But they felt there was reasonable doubt and they acquitted him. That's all it takes. You can be 99% sure someone is guilty, but if that pesky little 1% of your brain has a shadow of a doubt, then that person is innocent.
That's how it works. Better a guilty man go free than an innocent man go to jail. Fine. I get it. And that idea works for me in our law system, and it's worked for me in life. Until recently.
In the last few weeks, we've had the most famous cyclist of all-time admit that he ran the most complex and successful doping plan ever in the sport on his way to seven straight Tour de France titles. I knew Lance Armstrong was doping all along. It was painfully obvious. If there were 30 contenders in the Tour de France, and 29 of them were doping, as statistics show, how fat of a chance is it that the one clean guy won the race? Seven years in a row. No chance. Yet Lance never failed a test. Never got suspended. And so I couldn't say he was guilty.
We had Sports Illustrated report that Ray Lewis took a deer-antler spray with a banned substance in it while rehabbing from torn triceps, an injury that is supposed to take six months to heal. The 37-year-old Lewis, with over 15 years of NFL wear and tear on his body, came back in six weeks and has played better after the injury then he had been before it. Obviously Lewis juiced. But he didn't fail a test either. So we couldn't know for sure.
Alex Rodriguez did admit to taking PED's, but way back from 2001-2003. A-Rod wasn't juicing for the best years of his career? He just stopped, voluntarily, even when steroids were making him the highest paid sportsman ever? Yeah right. It came out this week in the Miami Herald that Rodriguez got his steroids from a clinic in South Florida, and had the head of the clinic come out and inject him. One time, a source told ESPN, the steroid guy from the clinic missed Rodriguez's vain with the needle. A-Rod lost it and threw him out of the house. Apparently, the source said, there was blood everywhere. I didn't need to see the blood to want to throw up.
Steroids are rampant in sports. Cheating is so prevalent; we don't even notice it anymore. We get stories like Adrian Peterson tearing his MCL and ACL and a year later nearly setting the all-time single season rushing record. It's not possible. And yet, Peterson hasn't failed a drug test. So he's as innocent as my nine-year-old brother. Last year, FIFA awarded the World Cup to Qatar. Qatar! There were reports of massive bribing. There always has been massive bribing in FIFA. It's a communist organization. The last time someone seriously challenged imbecile President Sepp Blatter for his position, that person got a lifetime ban for accepting bribes. As if he was the only one.
Major League Baseball let the steroid era happen because it was helping ratings and the game boomed. Well, they got busted. Barry Bonds never failed a steroid test. Neither did McGwire. Or Sosa. Innocent, innocent, innocent. Again, we all tell ourselves, BS. We know they cheated. Their head sizes tripled. Their muscles rippled. Bonds gained 100 pounds and hit 73 home runs at the age of 36. He was a speed guy when he was rookie. It was beyond absurd. Guys all over were doing steroids and baseball fans knew. They still do know. It can be obvious when a guy is cheating. David Ortiz went from a bench player with Minnesota to one of the best power hitters in baseball with Boston. Just like that. Out of the blue. That just doesn't happen. For every baseball fan who has watched the game over the last decade, names of people never busted for steroids, but that we know were juicing, jump to mind: For me? David Eckstien, Travis Hafner, Bret Boone, Gary Sheffield, Melvin Mora, and more.
It was a few years ago when my dad told me that my favorite player, Omar Vizquel, wasn't clean. I said no way. Omar Vizquel? No. My thought was: how dare you accuse Omar without a shred of proof? But that moment has always stuck with me. I've thought about, I've wrestled with it, and I've looked at the numbers. Omar was a .250 stick-figure hitter when he came into the league with Seattle for the first few years of his career. Then he went to Cleveland, got thicker, and started hitting .300. Coincidence? Maybe. Probably not. I've read Omar's auto-biography. He vigorously denies ever using steroids. But then again, who has ever freely admitted to cheating?
That's the real issue here. We need to raise the level of discourse in this sports-obsessed country on steroid use. Yet our hands are tied. Accuse a guy without proof, and with the level of sophistication in steroids today and how hamstrung the leagues are on testing policies, there is almost never proof, and you risk being demonized. Yeah, everyone is taking 'roid's in boxing and UFC and WWE. Of course. Doesn't matter that those guys pass all their drug tests. We know what's natural and not natural. We have bodies too.
It's not just steroids either. There are all kinds of problems in sports, not just PEDs. – take for instance, the NCAA's horrific bungling of Miami investigation. To talk openly about these issues, to raise the level of public discourse in this country on these shady issues, we need to get them out in the open. We need to speculate. We need to lower the burden of proof. But then what? We'd surely get guys flinging accusations all over the place, recklessly and simply for personal gain. No one would be safe anymore, even if they did things the right way.
The biggest obstacle in getting steroids out of sports is players’ unions. The players’ unions, protecting the interest of steroid-using players, severely limit their league’s abilities to test athletes. Doctors have repeatedly said that blood testing is the by far the best way to catch cheaters – but only this year is it being introduced in baseball, and it doesn't exist in any other sport. David Stern and the NBA has ignored steroids – there are no busts, so we forget about them and figure drugs aren't in the league at all. No chance. Steroids would help an NBA player more than an athlete in almost any other sport.
The first golfer got busted last week; Vijay Singh was apparently on the same stuff Ray Lewis was on. The drugs are in colleges and high schools. But we don't talk openly about the stuff, which takes years off people's lives and really do kill. The guys who have the real information, who run the clinics, supply the drugs are shady characters who run from light like cockroaches. To get to these guys, we need raise the standard of reporting from sports organizations, especially ESPN, 100 fold, get in the trenches with these guys, and get to the real info. But we also need to take these people seriously when they come out with their information. The man who ran BALCO said last year that 50% of baseball players are still on steroids. The story barely got any ink. Why? It sure is easier to not think about the steroid problem. But it's undeniably safer for people in power to ignore it.
I know I'm tired of steroids. I want to be tired of talking about them too. But the truth is, I'm not. I'm just getting started. It's become impossible to prove innocence, and for the guys that don't cheat, that sucks. So we have to talk about these things. It's a fine line we walk when we talk about steroids without the smoking gun of a positive test or an acclaimed report. We're stuck somewhere between slander and educating people.
After Chip Kelly left Oregon, I wrote in a column for this website the following sentence: "Will Lyles, you give me Seastrunk, I'll give you $25,000." That, by the letter of the law, is slander. I could, I suppose, be held responsible by a court of law. But I know Kelly cheated. I do. Willie Lyles is one of the most blatant street agents in NCAA history; he didn't supply Oregon with any recruiting materials, he didn't have any value to Oregon except in exerting his influence with Lache Seastrunk. This kind of thing happens all the time in college recruiting, another area riddled with cheating. Yet I shouldn't have written that sentence. I was right, but it doesn't matter. I wonder if it should going forward.
Is someone innocent until they've failed a drug test? Sure, legally speaking. But is someone innocent until they've failed a drug test but their head got four times bigger? I don't think so. Cheating is too easy in today's sports world. There are too many resources to cheat, and not enough watch dogs to stop the illegal processes that plague almost every major sport. How much do we trust people? How much do we trust ourselves to find the cheaters? Does it matter? You can't follow sports these days and not be jaded. I don't know if that will ever change, but we might as well take a stab at cleaning up the games we love. Innocent until proven guilty? Nah. Guilty until proven innocent? Nope. We just have to go with our gut.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports