Our Trust Issue

It’s 1988 in Seoul, South Korea.  The fastest men in the world are competing in the 100m Dash, the most exciting ten seconds at the Olympics.  In Lane 3 is Carl Lewis, the fastest man in the United States, seeking revenge against the man in lane 6: Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who holds the world record in the event with 9.83 seconds.

Unfortunately for Lewis, as soon as the starting gun sounds, the race is over.  Johnson gets an incredible start, and gets a meter-and-a-half lead on Lewis and the US’ Dennis Mitchell.  At 75 meters, Mitchell has faded and England’s Linford Christie has taken over third, but Johnson has extended his lead.  When he crosses the finish line, he looks at the scoreboard, and a smile comes on his face.  9.79.  A new world record for Johnson and satisfaction of destroying Lewis, who finished .13 seconds behind.

But all is not lost for Carl Lewis, as Ben Johnson still has to go through his post-race drug test.  For years, Lewis has maintained that Johnson was juicing (a slang term for using steroids), and now is his chance to prove it.  He sends one of his Santa Monica Track Club teammates, Andre Jackson, into the drug testing room to check to make sure that Johnson was on steroids.

To this day, Johnson believes that Jackson slipped a steroid pill into the beer he drank to provide for the drug test.  But it doesn’t matter.  Johnson fails the drug test, and is stripped of the gold medal in the event.  Lewis proudly displays the gold medal he is awarded in his home, saying, “I’m most proud of this one, because I did the right thing [by running without steroids].”

What Ben Johnson showed in 1988, and what athletes continue to show today, is that they can’t be trusted.  Whether it’s Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong, or Manti Te’O, it is almost impossible today to tell whether they are lying or telling the truth.  Of course, many events are subject to too much media attention; they are blown out of proportion by media such as ESPN and the four major TV networks (NBC, ABC, FOX, and CBS), as well as online blogs such as Deadspin and Grantland.  Even still, there are some sports scandals that deserve that attention.  The issue for sports fans is whether or not to trust what athletes (or their coaches) say.

For instance, since his inception as the MLB’s commissioner in 1992, Bud Selig has made it a personal mission to get rid of PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs) in baseball.  However, Selig’s actions often give an impression somewhat to the tune of Elwood Blues in the movie “The Blues Brothers”, “I’m on a mission from God.”

It’s debatable as to whether Selig as succeeded.  On January 29, 2013, Major League Baseball announced the discovery of a Miami-based clinic that supplied some of baseball’s biggest names with steroids.  On the list of the clinic’s clients are such big names as Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera (who has already been suspended for PEDs), and Washington National Gio Gonzalez.  While all three deny association with the clinic, it’s clear that Selig has a long way to go before he eliminates PEDs from his sport.

Both Gonzalez and Rodriguez have denied the claims of their steroid use.  But, given the statistics, it’s the fan’s call, as well as Bud Selig’s call, on whether or not they did use.  In 2009, Gonzalez’s first season in the majors, his ERA (Earned Run Average) was 5.75, which is very high.  In 2011, just two years later, it was 3.12, and it continued to go down in 2012, his first season with the Nats.  As for Rodriguez, in the middle of the 2010 season, he turned 35, often the cut-off point for aging former superstars.  However, in the season, he hit 30 home runs and drove in 125 runs, his highest totals since his MVP season in 2007. Melky Cabrera’s stats are even more drastic, but I will not use his example because he has already been caught (he was suspended for 50 games last season).

Another, more bizarre example can be found in University of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’O.  Te’O was a 2012 Heisman Trophy finalist, and led Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season, until a BCS National Championship Game loss to the University of Alabama brought them crashing down.  Throughout the ordeal, Te’O remained strong.  His inspiration was his girlfriend Lennay Kekua, a Stanford University graduate who had passed away from Leukemia on September 11, 2012, the same day Te’O’s grandmother died.  Or so the story goes.

After a September 15 game against Michigan State University, Te’O revealed to the sports world that his grandmother and his girlfriend had died on the same day, and that they were his inspiration for the season.  And the sporting world mourned with him.  At the beginning, nobody questioned it, nobody thought that this story was the least bit fantastic or coincidental.  There was no reason to believe it was anything more than what it was on the surface.

And that’s the way the story went, until January 16, 2013, when the online sports blog Deadspin reported that Lennay Kekua was fake, and that the inspirational story that had driven Notre Dame to the top of the college football world was all a hoax.  The report places the hoax on an acquaintance of Te’O’s, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.  According to the story, Te’O hoped to meet Kekua for the first time (their relationship was exclusively online) before a November 24 game against the University of Southern California, but it never happened.

In an interview with CBS’s Dr. Phil McGraw, Tuiasosopo admits to perpetrating the hoax, admits to being molested as a child, admits to that being one of the driving forces behind the hoax, and admits to being romantically in love with Te’O. (However, when asked if he was gay, Tuiasosopo says he is confused.)  While Te’O’s name has been cleared from the hoax, he has admitted to knowing about the hoax before the Deadspin story, and it is clear that his story is the most bizarre many have heard in a long time.

While scandals like Ben Johnson and steroids are rife in professional sports, often high school sports seem to be exempt from steroids and scandals.  Those chances have severely decreased with mandatory high school drug testing in states such as Texas, Illinois, and New Jersey.  The programs are all operated by a company called Drug Free Sport, which is the largest provider of drug testing operations in the country.

DFS is hoping to expand its operations out of its current states, but the tests are met with mixed results by newspapers such as “The New York Times.”  For instance, a Missouri newspaper wrote a negative article about a Kansas City high school that took their athletes’ hair for drug testing.

Although high school sports appear, on the surface, to be free of scandals, it has its share of drug users and sexual abuse lawsuits.  My point is that, in every level of athletics, whether in high school sports, college sports (see Manti Te’O), or professional sports, the athletic world is chock full of liars and cheaters.  The issue for fans is whether or not to trust what an athlete or coach says.

Almost everybody who has ever been accused of using steroids has denied it, but ended up having to admit it anyway.  In cyclist Lance Armstrong’s recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, he admitted to using steroids for the first time in his career.  For most sports fans, though, it was clear from the beginning.  In cycling, steroid use is as common as the bikes in the races; in a race filled with juicers, there was no way Armstrong wasn’t juicing.

His persistent denial of a clear fact is why I, personally, keep a shred of doubt in my mind whenever I listen to an athlete speak.  Does every athlete lie and cheat?  No, there are isolated examples of volunteer humanitarians and Play 60 advertisements where the athletes aren’t being paid.  But does every fantastic sports story have a chance of being proven wrong?  Of course.  The Super Bowl gets more media coverage than Presidential Inaugurations, so there is always the chance that a story breaks a year-old cover-up.

It’s time for our athletes to tell the truth, plain and simple.  The fact that I can find so many major incidents involving lying and cheating among our athletes should be reason enough for them to start.  It’s never too late to tell the truth, and it’s time athletes get that message.  The American public is ready to forgive them, but they need a reason to.