Archive for Friday, July 14, 2006

Steroids era blurs the guilty, innocent

July 14, 2006

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I was back in the Chicago area to surprise my dad on Father's Day. The driver from the car service who picked me up at the airport was a kindly older woman. She was in a good mood. Her grandchild had been born earlier that day.

It didn't take long for the conversation to turn to sports.

She was reading "Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroid Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports." She was a realist. She wasn't surprised to learn how widespread the use of performance-enhancing drugs among elite athletes truly was.

"I always wondered about Walter Payton," she said. "He died so young."

Whoa! The accusation hit me like a sledgehammer.

Payton died of bile duct cancer in 1999. He was 45. I had never so much as considered that the disease that claimed the life of the Chicago Bears running back could be steroid-related. It had never entered my mind.

I later realized what she was doing, what I'm doing, what we're all doing as one doping scandal after another rocks the sports world: We're searching for a middle ground between sentimentalism and cynicism. We don't want to be suspicious of our sports heroes past and present, but we don't want to be naive, either. We don't want to go around accusing every athlete of cheating, but we feel like rubes when we find out after the fact.

Where is that line between understanding that doping is prevalent in sports and not being suspicious of everyone and everything? Nobody is accusing Payton of anything here. In fact, "Sweetness" is the last person anybody should suspect of using performance-enhancing drugs.

His playing weight - 205 pounds - remained consistent throughout his Hall of Fame career. His durability alone would seem to discount his doping. Nagging injuries that can be a side effect of steroids didn't prevent him from playing in an astounding 189 of 190 games in 13 NFL seasons.

There's no doubt that steroid use by NFL players was common during Payton's playing days. He certainly could have had access to them.

He did die of cancer at a young age, and the long-term use of steroids lowers the immune system and can damage the liver and the kidneys.

That's the whole point, you see. We don't know. We'll never know, and therefore we're free to wonder not just about Payton but anyone and everyone from Roger Clemens to Lance Armstrong to Albert Pujols.

About all we do know is that doping is everywhere. Just when some had concluded that baseball had been purged of performance-enhancing drugs as a result of more stringent drug testing, Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Jason Grimsley gets busted for human growth hormone and the game is soiled again.

Just when Armstrong was being cleared of reports that he cheated to win the first of seven straight Tour de France titles, a new scandal rocks the sport, resulting in three prerace favorites being ousted from this year's race.

New reports of Tour de France riders undergoing blood transfusions between stages and eating cocaine-laced concoctions to improve their stamina are rampant, leading us to wonder if they're true or just imaginations run amuck.

No matter where you stand on this issue this much is true: The cheaters are winning and they're dragging everybody else down with them.

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