Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Don't like PEDs? You should probably be watching footy then.

Hey, everyone! Now, before you say anything you might regret, let me just come out and say I know what you're thinking.

"Dave, first you run away to Africa for three weeks and then when you return you don't even write for almost three more? How could you not call us?"

I get it. Really, I do. Let's just say that when you go to Africa your priorities might get mildly shuffled. This is particularly apt to happen when you nearly die 17,000 feet up Kilimanjaro and then the airport burns down on you when you're days away from flying home. Don't get me wrong, it was a wonderful trip with hundreds of amazing wild animals and dozens of memorable experiences, but Africa is a crazy, crazy place and it is, uh, not at all like the United States or New York in particular. It's a place where infrastructure takes a break, punctuality is generally a suggestion and crazy things just happen. How crazy, you ask? Well look. Things got pretty crazy. For example -- and I cannot stress this enough -- Kenya's international airport actually burned down days before I was scheduled to fly home. I can only say dear friends that you have not seen disorganization until you have seen it in Africa.

Rest assured, however, I did make it home, even if it took me an extra day and required going straight from an eight-hour transatlantic flight to my office for a full shift at work. Yes, I know it has taken me nearly three weeks to actually post here so I could entertain you fine people, and I know I'm leaving New York again this weekend (more about that Thursday), but can't we just forgive and forget? After all, I came a long way to write to you people.

Granted, I didn't come from as far as, say, Australia, but Kenya is still pretty far. And Australia probably would have had the organizational capacity to develop a good contingency plan in the event of an airport fire. How do I know this? I know this because the AFL (that's the football league I write about while you all decide to stop reading) has been in the midst of dealing with a widespread PED scandal for the past several months and today they handed down their final ruling, though more sanctions to individual players may yet come down later on. It was an example of brutal, all-encompassing efficiency, which would never be possible or enforceable in Africa, and it might not even be possible in the United States.

Now, getting our knickers in a twist over steroids-related hysteria has long been a favored pastime in the United States, particularly as it relates to Major League Baseball. Our reasons for getting all up in arms when it comes to performance enhancing drugs is about 15-fold. Part of this is because it creates a competitive disadvantage that impugns the integrity of the games as they're played and part of it is because taking these drugs often can damage the body in irreparable ways that are not only unhealthy but set a dangerous example for those who are young and idolize the participating athletes. But, really, the biggest reason we all hate steroids, and this might be difficult for some of you to hear, is because most of our sports stories are written by septuagenarians who just can't handle the records of their childhood heroes going up in flames while other sports writers and literally millions of fans are uncomfortable with and refuse to confront their own cheerleading complicity in the steroids era. While Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire ruined the games we hold dear, none of us have stopped to talk about how we didn't need to give the home run chase of 1998 so much media coverage if we were skeptical and how we didn't have to buy so many damn tickets.

But hey, chicks aren't the only ones who dig the long ball, and here we are.

To be clear, it's not that I don't care about steroids or I don't think they're bad, but I certainly think the outrage is more than a little overblown. Characters like Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, who are pigeonholed and scapegoated by national media and fans alike, are often just our whipping boys because we didn't like them very much in the first place, which is pretty unfair when as many as 80 % of Major Leaguers might have been using steroids in the late 1990s. I'm not the only person who feels this way.

This has all come into even more focus with the recent biogenesis scandals that have resulted in several top-tier baseball players taking big suspensions, the big fish of which is, of course, A-Rod, who was suspended for an astonishing 211 games, though the suspension is currently under appeal and A-Rod is still playing. Baseball players sometimes like to take the matter into their own hands as Ryan Dempster did recently, which was totally smart since all putting the leadoff man on cost him was the two-run lead he entered the inning with.

But I digress. For many people that sword of Damocles cannot fall fast enough for them to get their pound of flesh. After all, why should they care about the tough decisions most of these players made in deciding to dope, likely compromising their own values in the process? They got their 30 pieces of silver. If those people really want their blood lust, all-consuming asterisks and lifetime suspensions (which A-Rod's may well turn out to effectively be), they should turn their attention down under.

The Essendon Football Club has for more than two years now been embroiled in a scandal regarding a rigid supplements program that may have kept players on a strict regiment of drugs that are, shall we say, not kosher. If indeed there were a regimented program of illegal supplements which provided the entire Essendon team with a competitive advantage, surely that was cause for concern. And after an extensive investigation for most of this year, during which a fairly dark cloud was hanging over a team that was competitive and postseason-bound if not an elite championship contender, the AFL finally announced its findings and discipline today.

Well, if you are one of those fans who despises PEDs and craves rule with an iron fist, you ought to take a cue, because it became pretty clear this morning that the AFL isn't fucking around.

The Essendon Football Club was fined $2 million, is barred from participating in the 2013 AFL postseason (known as the Finals Series) and was stripped of both its first and second-round picks in the 2013 and 2014 AFL Drafts. In addition to this, head coach James Hird was suspended for 12 months while football manager Danny Corcoran received a six-month suspension and assistant coach Mark Thompson (head coach of Geelong for its 2007 and 2009 championships) was fined $30,000. It should be noted that this was the final ruling when it was Essendon itself which brought the potential use of illegal supplements to the AFL and ASADA's attention and asked for a full investigation.

Now many of us may think these aren't particularly comparable situations. After all, individual players deciding to use steroids is not the same thing as systematic implication of PEDs, potentially without the players' knowledge. But one could just as easily make the argument that MLB PED use in the 1990s was effectively systematic across the Majors either through quiet encouragement or clubhouse pressure. All that said, I'm not sure any sports fan in North America could imagine a series of penalties on this order. Suspensions for an entire season? Sure. Stripped of draft picks? Absolutely. Enormous fines? Oh, you betcha. Those last two at the same time? Oh it can happen.

But all of those at the same time? And a ban from postseason play, a punishment largely confined to college athletics upholding the fallacy of scholastic competition? All of these at once is a punishment largely unheard of in the ranks of North American sports, perhaps on par only with the NCAA's death penalty, which has deliberately been avoided in major collegiate sports since it was last enforced because it is almost too dramatic. While I might consider it a bit too harsh, there is no denying that the discipline meted out is a fairly courageous move by the AFL to make its lack of tolerance for such things clear, a dramatic juxtaposition with North American sports, which have largely tried to brush similar scandals under the rug until recently.

Is it a precedent the major sports leagues in the U.S. are likely to follow? Probably not. For one, I don't know that Bud Selig stays awake until 5 a.m. to watch Geelong face Hawthorn. But perhaps more importantly, drastic punishments whether in sports or in society have largely failed in their role as deterrents. Regardless of the damage caused by cheating or the effective cost/benefit questions inherit within, people will always cheat. But I imagine many will feel a team is likely to think twice before doing so if something like this is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Are they right? Who knows. I'm inclined to think they aren't. Some scandal will always be on its way to rock our sensibilities when it comes to professional sports, but with the AFL's punishment of Essendon this morning, we will have a test case to see just how big a punishment is big enough to keep PED users in line and just how much of it we, as fans, are prepared to accept as rational. The coverage of it in this country is likely to be scant, but perhaps if it wasn't, maybe we'd see a few players thinking twice -- or at least we'd have an idea if they might.

The only thing we really know clearly about all of this? If you actually got to the end of this manifesto on a sport that almost certainly none of you follow, you're probably thinking one thing.

"Maybe Dave should have stayed in Africa."

Well believe me, it almost came to that. But I'm back now to keep you informed. And don't worry. Next time I'll actually be writing about a sport you're interested in. I promise.

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