Thursday, January 11, 2007

How and why drugs will always corrupt the sports industry

The furor that followed the outright rejection of Mark McGwire’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame didn’t deal with the real issue(s) concerning the use of performance enhancement drugs in sports – why would anyone knowingly inject substances into their bodies that they understood can shorten their life? Steve Belcher – dead. Ken Caminiti – dead. Lyle Alzado – dead. Florence Griffith Joyner dead. Four examples of athletes who mortgaged their lives in hopes of excelling on the athletic field. And what possible rationale could any human being have in believing the use of performance-enhancement drugs made more sense than living – the business of sports.

Possibly the greatest single example of what’s wrong with the sports industry today is the misguided belief the ‘guardians’ of the game, the ‘protectors’ of the integrity of sports principal of ensuing fair play will save sports. Be very sure about one issue, it isn’t right, nor will it ever be for athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs to gain a completive edge. But be very sure about this as well, as long as the system men like Dick Pound helped to build, the athletes, sports federations, sports teams, sports leagues and organizations will look the other way if athletes who are representing their sport or playing for their team are bigger and better. When athletes perform better, teams win more games, countries win more medals and make more money. That is the crux of the problem – why the system is so inheriting corrupt and will likely never be corrected.

Dick Pound the President of WADA (the World Anti-Doping Association), the ‘guardian’ of Olympic ideals since WADA’s formation in 1999, suggested to the New York Times Olympic sponsors remain focused on an idealized, “Chariots of Fire” view of sport, not the doped version. Even when Olympic athletes test positive, Pound says, “it oddly enough adds to the luster of the Olympic brand. Even though we don’t always get it right” — by this he means the fight for drug-free sport — “people understand and respect that we are trying, and that’s what separates us from the N.F.L. and N.B.A. and others.”

WADA’s mandate should be on the Olympic Games. Pound however sees himself as a self-appointed critic of professional sports, notably high profile North American professional sports leagues. Some would suggest during his eight years as President of WADA, the Montreal based lawyer has conducted his own reign of terror on professional sports. The good news, for those who have had enough of Dick Pound, he is expected to step down was WADA President later this year when his current three-year term ends.

In 2005 Pound drew the wrath of the National Hockey League when he suggested one in three National Hockey League players uses performance-enhancing substances.

"I think he's admitted as much in the past. He's never had information that in any way justified or supported his allegation," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly in a Globe and Mail report. "He's a modern day Joseph McCarthy."

For the uninitiated Joe McCarthy remains one of histories most disgraced figures. As a United States Senator in the early 1950’s McCarthy accused countless good and great Americans of being Communists. Five years after the end of World War II, McCarthy played a terrible role in helping to create a level of mistrust among Americans. The analogy between McCarthy and Dick Pound is as harsh an assessment of Pound’s ‘contributions’ to sports as anyone has ever offered. It turns out the always honest and straight forward Bill Daly appears to have hit the bull’s-eye in comparing the reviled McCarthy and Pound.

Pound was asked during his interview with The New York Times Magazine what was the basis of his one-in-three estimate relating to the use of banned substances by NHL’ers: "It was pick a number," Pound replied. "So it's 20 per cent. Twenty-five per cent. Call me a liar." In other words, there was no basis whatsoever of fact in the comments Dick Pound directed at the National Hockey League.

"Dick Pound's comments are incredibly irresponsible and have no basis in fact. He has no knowledge of our sport and our players and frankly has no business making such comments," said NHL Player Association chief Ted Saskin in the Globe and Mail report.

And that’s when and where Dick Pound becomes his own worst enemy. His intentions are honest, his belief in a purer version of sports without athletes using performance-enhancing drugs while idealistic is more important than ever, but when Dick Pound openly admits the numbers he’s referring to have no basis of fact, Dick Pound loses any credibility he has. Why would anyone trust anything Dick Pound has to say if he admits to the New York Times statements he made are indefensible? There is a message Pounds needs to focus on – and that message had to be simple and straight forward – the use of performance-enhancement drugs can kill.

Ken Caminiti died unexpectedly of an apparent heart attack in The Bronx (in a reputed drug house) at the age of 41; he was pronounced dead on October 10, 2004 at New York's Lincoln Memorial Hospital. Preliminary news reports on October 15, 2004 indicated he died of a drug overdose. Rob Silva, an acquaintance of Caminiti who spent part of the day with him on October 10, told New York Newsday that Caminiti was edgy and depressed on the day he died, but also said he did not witness Caminiti using drugs on that day. On November 1, the New York City Medical Examiners Office announced that Caminiti died from "acute intoxication due to the combined effects of cocaine and opiates", but coronary artery disease and cardiac hypertrophy (an enlarged heart) were also contributing factors.

Two and a half years earlier on May 28, 2002 Caminiti told Sports Illustrated he had used steroids when he won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1996. Caminiti defended his use of steroids and told SI's Tom Verducci the use of steroids was so wide-spread in Major League Baseball he would not discourage anyone interested in playing professional baseball during the so-called steroid era from not using steroids.

"Look at all the money in the game," Caminiti told S.I.. "A kid got $252 million. So I can't say, 'Don't do it,' not when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he's going to take your job and make the money." And that is the heart of the issue – the money, not the joy of the game, not men playing a game they first played as boys, but the heart of the issue as the late Ken Caminiti saw it was the chance to make millions of dollars, make that tens of millions, no make that potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although he was the first major leaguer to publicly admit using steroids, Caminiti told Verducci that, "It's no secret what's going on in baseball. At least half the guys are using [steroids]. They talk about it. They joke about it with each other. ... I don't want to hurt fellow teammates or fellow friends. But I've got nothing to hide."

Lyle Alzado is probably most remembered today for being one of the first major American sports figures to admit to abuse of steroids. In 1992, seven years after playing in his last regular-season game, Alzado died from brain lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. In the last years of his life, as he battled against the brain cancer that eventually caused his death at the age of 43, Alzado asserted that his steroid abuse directly led to his final illness. This assertion has been disputed by many medical experts as there is no medical evidence steroids had anything to do with his condition and his own doctors denied the claim that they did.

According to an report -- at the height of his steroid and human growth hormone abuse, Alzado estimated he spent $30,000 a year on the drugs, often buying them at gyms around the country. His second wife, Cindy, blamed the breakup of their marriage on his mood swings caused by steroids. She said she called police at least five times during their marriage because Lyle physically abused her, but Alzado was never arrested.

Like Caminiti, Alzado admitted to Sports Illustrated (in a first person report in July 1991, three months after being diagnosed with brain cancer) that he had used steroids and other drugs during his football career.

"It was addicting, mentally addicting," Alzado wrote of his steroid use. "I just didn't feel strong unless I was taking something."

In his account to Sports Illustrated, Alzado said he began taking anabolic steroids in college in 1969 and never stopped. "It wasn't worth it," Alzado wrote. "If you're on steroids or human growth hormone, stop. I should have."

After receiving a radical chemotherapy treatment and contracting pneumonia, Alzado died on May 14, 1992 at his home in Portland, Ore. The official cause of death was complications from brain cancer.

Florence Griffith-Joyner, also known as Flo-Jo was an American athlete, still holder of the World Records in the 100 m and 200 m as of 2006. She was the wife of track star Al Joyner and the sister-in-law of Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She won three gold medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, along with a Silver medal in 1988 and Silver at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

During her 1988 breakthrough year, Griffith-Joyner was hounded by constant rumors of drug use. Some of her track competitors insisted that her times could only be the result of using steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, mainly because her performance improved dramatically over a short period of time, and when she was rather old for a sprinter. And for many the focus of the 1988 Olympics was the aftermath of Canadian Ben Johnson’s positive drug test, an event that tainted the Olympic movement to this day (and indirectly led to the creation of WADA).

To add to that controversy Flo-Jo retired from competitive track and field right after her Olympic victories. Many have jokingly claimed that if she could just jog 100m her appearance fees and endorsement contract would be worth multiple millions during 1989. 1989 was the beginning of the out of competition doping controls. Prior to 1989 athletes could only be caught doping during competition. It was known that many athletes used performance enhancing drugs during training and allowed sufficient time for the drugs to pass through the system before competition. Nonetheless, no evidence of performance enhancing drug use by Florence Griffith Joyner has ever been found.

In 1998, Griffith Joyner died in her sleep at her home in Mission Viejo, California. On October 22, the sheriff-coroner's office announced the cause of death as: "1) positional asphyxia 2) epileptiform seizure 3) cavernous angioma, left orbital frontal cerebrum".

The cavernous angioma referred to a brain abnormality discovered during the autopsy that made Joyner subject to seizures. It is in fact, a congenital defect, having developed at birth. In 1990 she had, according to a family attorney, suffered a grand mal seizure and had been treated for seizures in 1990, 1993 and 1994.

The cause of death in effect said that she had suffocated in her pillow during a severe epileptic seizure. This is contrary to the many unsubstantiated claims that doping had caused her early death.

While Ken Caminiti referred to hundred million contracts as his ‘rationale’ for using performance drugs, it’s much easier to understand why someone like Florence Griffith-Joyner would abuse her body. Olympic athletes only get to enjoy the world stage for two weeks every four years. Flo-Jo was known more for her extremely long and colorful fingernails rather than how fast she ran in the 1988 Olympic Games. That said wining three gold medals at the 1988 Olympic Games provided Flo-Jo with the opportunity to earn millions of dollars in endorsement opportunities. Unless and until every athlete is pure and drug free human beings, as Dick Pound believes they should be, the system will continue to be self-corrupting.

Even scarier most national sports federations continue to receive their quadrennial funding (the four year period between a Winter or Summer Olympic Games) based on how their athletes perform at an Olympic Games. Any system that basis its finances directly on results is a system easily open to corruption.

The saddest example of athletes abusing their bodies to move forward in their chosen profession might be Steve Belcher. Steve Bechler was a pitching prospect with the Orioles, who died Feb. 17, 2003 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at the age of 23.

A dietary supplement with ephedera was linked to Bechler's death. He had collapsed during practice on a Sunday (the early days of the Orioles 2003 Spring Training camp) and had been taken to the hospital by ambulance.

Team officials reported that Bechler's condition had worsened throughout the day and night and that he died at 10:10 a.m. Monday morning. Bechler leaves behind a wife, Kiley, who was 7 months pregnant at the time of his death.

Steve Belcher had a weight problem; he would go without eating for a couple of days and then drink diet pop with aspartame all day. He had a family history of heart problems and aspartame destroys the heart. After researching the issue it's obvious that Steve Bechler did not die because he was using ephedra, it was just another aspartame death! Even Dr. Perper could only conclude that ephedrine "probably contributed" to his death but this doctor was not knowledgeable of aspartame's effect on the heart nor did he know that Steve Belcher was using it.

Steve Belcher may have believed at 23 his life had reached its crossroads. The Orioles drafted Belcher in the third round of the 1998 draft. He had worked his way through the Orioles minor league system, starting the 2002 season with the Orioles AA affiliate in Bowie, was called up to the Orioles AAA Rochester franchise, and earned a September call-up to “The Show”. Belcher appeared in three games for the Orioles in September 2002 and would have started the 2003 season with the Orioles AAA affiliate (then in Ottawa) but Steve Belcher knew all too well the short window of opportunity to potentially earn tens of millions of dollars as a big leaguer had arrived. Overweight, faced with the mindset of a society where it’s a now or never philosophy, Steve Belcher made some terrible choices, decisions that cost Steve Belcher his life.

Dick Pound has done far more good for sports than most people ever will in ten lifetimes. His heart and his feelings about sports are more often than not in the right place, but Dick Pound is going to be remembered for his abrasive, ‘take no prisoners’ nature. His message has always been the right one; how he’s delivered that message will forever haunt his legacy. Nonetheless as Steve Belcher, Ken Caminiti, Lyle Alzado and Florence Griffith-Joyner, the price to be paid for using performance-enhancing drugs can be everlasting in the worst of possible manners.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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