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February 17, 2009

A-Rod & Michael Phelps: The Sports Media Must Be on Drugs


In recent weeks, there have been two major news stories involving world-class athletes and drugs, and both have caused some truly bizarre reactions. Alex Rodriguez took steroids, and Michael Phelps smoked marijuana. Both did things they shouldn't have, and I'm not defending either, but the reactions many have had to them have either been disproportionate, bizarre or downright laughable.

Let's start with A-Rod. The New York Yankees slugger tested positive for two separate steroids in 2003. The testing that year was done as part of a "survey" of major leaguers, meant to be confidential and remain sealed, but they were seized by the government as part of the Barry Bonds/BALCO investigation, and Rodriguez's result was leaked to Sports Illustrated.

In an interview with ESPN's Peter Gammons, Rodriguez admitted that he had used the drugs between 2001 and 2003, while with the Texas Rangers, but never did before or since.

This admission is a big deal for baseball because the rulers of the game had hoped that Bonds's departure, and last year's release of the Mitchell Report, would lead to the "book being closed" on steroids in baseball, and that eventually a clean athlete, like, say, A-Rod, would one day break Bonds's career home run record. Now, it appears clear that the steroid issue will continue to haunt the game for years to come.

Rodriguez took steroids, and will have to live with the consequences. Questions will always be raised about the legitimacy of his career, he may miss out on the Hall of Fame and the nine years he has remaining on his ironclad contract may be a living hell, as he deals with hostile New York fans. (Lucky for Alex, he'll have $270 million in remaining salary to soften the blow.)

But here's what didn't happen. Rodriguez didn't "take away the innocence" of the game. It never had any to begin with. And he didn't exactly ruin his own reputation either. As was pointed out on Slate by Tim Marchman last week, Rodriguez was probably the most hated active baseball player before last Saturday, and he still is today. Whether it's his bizarre demeanor, his well-publicized alleged affairs with strippers and Madonna, his serial post-season failures or, (worst of all) "not being a true Yankee," A-Rod has never been particularly well liked.

Not to mention, it doesn't appear that the general public cares about steroids nearly as much as Congress or most sports columnists do. For all the talk that the steroid era has delegitimized the game, attendance and with it, revenue have steadily risen in baseball throughout the past decade, even as revelation after revelation about steroids has trickled out every year.

No, Rodriguez shouldn't be banned for life the rules of 2003 survey testing would expressly forbid any suspension. No, Commissioner Bud Selig shouldn't be fired as a result of this the success of the game in the last 15 years has outweighed the steroid issue in the eyes of most people in the game. And no, the Yankees shouldn't, as New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden suggested, release Rodriguez and eat the remaining $270 million in his contract. Sure, they'd be "making a statement," but it would still be insane.

Then there's Phelps. The all-world Olympic champion was snapped smoking pot from a bong at a college party, and when someone else at the party snapped a picture of the swimmer, the picture made its way around the world.

Sure, in doing so, Phelps disappointed fans who are vehemently anti-drug. He was suspended for a few months of non-crucial competition, and he'll have to do without a couple of his sponsors (though if Kellogg's didn't realize how many stoners are frequent consumers of its products, they probably do now.) But by the tone of some of the media coverage and police response, you'd think Phelps had participated in a gang rape.

He's not an addict. He doesn't need rehab. He didn't sell drugs to kids. He's a 23-year-old guy who took a couple of hits at a party. Sure, he was stupid to do so with unfamiliar people and in cell phone/camera range. But of all the terrible things that athletes have done in the last five years domestic violence incidents, ridiculous amounts of uncared-for illegitimate children, dogfighting, etc. this doesn't rank in the top 1,000.

Even worse was the insane police response, which led to a major investigation, two search warrants and eight arrests. For a bunch of college kids smoking pot? Really? Phelps's drunk-driving arrest, four years ago, was much more worthy of outrage.

I'm not a drug user, I don't generally defend drug use and I'm not a proponent of drug decriminalization. But I do consider it both unfair and a huge misuse of law enforcement resources to arrest or throw people in jail, or even investigate them, for taking a few tokes at a party.

In an ideal world, slugging ballplayers wouldn't take steroids, and superstar Olympic swimmers wouldn't smoke pot. But in real life, our athletic heroes disappoint us at times. Let's have some perspective in analyzing these things, and not act like the offenders are the worst people on Earth.


2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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