Friday’s leak that the International Cycling Union (UCI) keeps a special “suspicions” list of pro cyclists ranked according to how likely they are to be dopers reminds me of that old adage from All the President’s Men: “Follow the money.”
To spell that out, let’s compare the doping cultures of pro cycling and the NFL, and the money in each. All-in, pro cycling is perhaps very generously worth half a billion bucks annually. And maybe that’s Lance-era. Today it might be more like $200 million. The NFL, meanwhile, has never been richer. Figure $15 billion annually. Or, put another way, pro cycling is worth what the poorest NFL franchise would sell for.
Now the other side. The dark underbelly.
While endurance athletes such as cyclists are more likely to use EPO to make the most of the air we breath, the big verboten recovery cocktail in the NFL is HGH. But while cyclists — and anyone else who competes in a sport that’s also part of the Olympics — must abide by the rules set down by the World Anti Doping Agency, players in the NFL have their own, far slacker rules governing doping. With WADA and pro cycling you have to give practically any bodily fluid at any time, day or night, no matter where you are in the world. Get popped for a banned substance and you’re looking at a two-year ban, guilty until proven innocent (you’re almost never proven innocent). Further, athletes are tested from a very young age, and the data is cataloged in a so-called “biological passport.”
Hence the latest news that leaked out of the UCI, the so-called “Index of Suspicion,” which graded all 198 riders from last year’s Tour de France, based on this passport data. The ratings ran from between 1 and 10, with 1 being almost beyond reproach and 10 being dirtier than Marco Pantani in a nightclub with a mirror on his lap.
Mind you, I’m not arguing pro or con here, either for or against the passport program, for or against the blood and urine tests, for or against rating athletes based on the data you have at hand. It’s just what we know — and how the WADA and NFL operate are as distant as the Sun and Pluto.
In the NFL, you never give blood, only pee. With no blood, there’s no way to test for HGH. And even if you do get popped for HGH use (they nail your courier) the biggest ban is four games, not two years. But in the battle over labor negotiations (you’ve probably noticed that the NFL and the players are at odds over how to divide their billions for the forthcoming 2011-12 season) the NFL owners have actually brought up the idea of bringing in WADA to test for HGH. This is earth-shaking stuff, as pro football players privately guesstimate HGH use at 30 percent. Which probably means it’s more like double that, at least.
But such testing will never happen, because unlike in cycling, there’s just too much money at play. As ESPN columnist Tim Keown recently explained:
…bringing in WADA and its blood testing — HGH, anyone? — to run the drug program…A two-year suspension for a positive A and B sample? That’s the WADA way. You think cycling is a mess? Multiply the carnival-like drama that surrounds cycling by about a million and you’ve got a pretty good idea of a WADA/NFL marriage.
Keown goes on to say that most American NFL fans “…have reached an angle of repose when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. They don’t know the extent of it, but they can guess a little bit, and they’re OK with the idea that a lot of these guys probably have to do something extra to play such a brutal game at such a high level week after week.”
That’s probably true. But the sad part of this is the hypocrisy. Why is it okay with Americans that most of our Sunday superstars are dopers but we’d be crestfallen if we found proof that Lance doped? Landis? Are we mad because Landis doped or because he got caught and unlike in the NFL the rules don’t just slap him on the wrist and let him keep riding?
It’s time we reconcile how we feel about doping and professional sports. All of them. Because we ask the impossible and then we’re upset when the fairy tale isn’t true. The truth: It’s inhumanely painful to slam your body into another man’s body at 10 miles per hour 20 times a day for 18 games a season over the course of a decade. The truth: It’s impossibly hard to ride a bike at an average speed of over 20 miles per hour for three weeks straight, over 100 miles a day.
Can people do any of this cleanly and still compete? What would you do in their shoes? If you’re not comfortable with your answer, good. That probably means you’re being honest, and that’s a much better place to be than how most Americans are today.