Saturday, February 07, 2009

Soccer and steroids

Yesterday morning, a Sports Illustrated report fingered Alex Rodriguez - the best player in baseball - as a steroid user. A cheater.

Rodriguez, whom many believed to be "clean" from illegal performance enhancers, reportedly tested positive for steroids in 2003. Today, his name, as well as his sport, are getting dragged through the mud as a result.

The A-Rod controversy is particularly saddening for me. I love baseball. I don't want to believe it. To a fan like myself, his reported abuse forces me to cast suspicion upon every baseball superstar, not to mention the veracity of every impressive statistic.

Luckily, I also love soccer, a game where there the steroid culture doesn't exist. Or does it?

We know that Jon Conway and Jeff Parke were suspended for taking illegal performance enhancers. But can we honestly believe, with all certainty, that they are the only players abusing them?

I don't know the answer to that. I want to believe that Conway and Parke are simply two bad apples. They claim that they weren't taken intentionally, unaware that an over the counter ehnancer contained the illicit drug. Unfortunately, I don't buy that for one-tenth of a second.

Professional athletes aren't dumb when it comes to nutrition. In my experience with talking to pro athletes - whether it be soccer, baseball or football players, friends or the athletes I cover- the vast majority of them know what exactly is going onto their bodies. They have to. Their careers depends upon it.

Having said that, is it difficult to imagine a soccer player taking performance enhancers? In terms of other sports like baseball or football - yes. The abuse of PEs in both sports have been well documented, and addressed with aggressive anti-doping standards in each sport, particularly baseball.

I know what you might be thinking: baseball and football players need steroids to bulk up. Why would soccer players need it?

Let me answer that question with a question: why do track stars and sprinters take steroids? To gain speed. To get faster. Sounds like an attribute one might need in soccer, no?

It's obvious that baseball and football have battled to fight the performance enhancement issue. Both sports have enforced stricter testing methods in effort to catch any perpetrators. All the while, soccer has, thankfully, remained well outside of the media storm.

But that isn't to say that soccer, including MLS, is completely clean. Shortly after the Conway and Park incident, a colleague of mine requested to speak with an MLS manager about the problem. He was told - and I quote - "no questions about steroids" by the club public relations director. Yikes.

Does a comment like this hint at a possible a steroid problem within MLS? I hope not. I want to believe that all of the statistics, the records, the achievements - EVERYTHING - in MLS is legit, unlike the way it is in Major League Baseball. I want to believe that MLS players have finer-tuned moral compasses than their tarnished sporting counterparts. I want to believe that MLS is a clean league with clean players.

But after A-Rod, who was supposedly deemed clean by many, was implicated as a steroid abuser, I can't shake my suspicions. Not even when it comes to soccer.

The steroid issue has robbed me of the faith I once had in baseball. There was a time when you could believe in sports. You could believe that an element of fairness could be found. It was supposed to be inherent.

And this is just one of the many reasons why I have faith in American soccer. To me, it is one of the final bastions where fairness prevails on the majority. A sport that - at least Stateside -remains pure.

I hope my faith in MLS is well-placed. But I can't help but wonder sometimes...


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