Growing up, I never had illusions about the substance use of professional athletes. Then again, my favorite sports team was the 1980s New York Mets, and my favorite athletes were in the rings of the National Wrestling Alliance. Spending as much time as I did watching amped-up athletes ranging from Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry to Ric Flair and Road Warrior Hawk, it was hard to be surprised when evidence of their substance use came out. And, despite the Just Say No agitprop, I never really felt much like condemning them for their choices.
This was not a majoritarian viewpoint in the media of the ’80s, when sports columns and commentaries often came with a heavy glaze of empty moralism. Most of us who were teenage males in the ’80s remember, for example, when Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose. The flipside to all of the hysteria spoon-fed to the middle class from the corporate media, however, was a logical deduction: specifically, that drug use was a matter of free will. Despite the athlete-as-hero mythology used to sell sports memorabilia, the fact was that these were and are driven men who did what they wanted and had the money to do so.
Cocaine hasn’t disappeared from sports, as the preponderance of sinus conditions on every NBA telecast indicates. Over the years, though, we've seen drugs (especially performance enhancers) employed for purposes as professional as they are recreational. And scandals galore to match.
Consider Lance Armstrong’s recent protracted tumble from grace (ironic, given how doped-up the competitive cycling circuit has always been), or the ritualized savaging of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for boosting their power numbers with performance enhancers. And then, as recently as Super Bowl week, the staunchly denied allegations that Ray Lewis of the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens used deer antler spray in an effort to prolong his valuable career for one more campaign.
Closer to home, yet another athlete is caught up in the deer antler spray story. Professional golfer and Ponte Vedra Beach resident Vijay Singh, a former No. 1 player in the world, withdrew from the Phoenix Open, claiming back problems even as events forced him to issue a statement regarding his use of deer antler spray last year.
“While I have used deer antler spray, at no time was I aware that it may contain a substance that is banned under the PGA Tour Anti-Doping Policy. In fact, when I first received the product, I reviewed the list of ingredients and did not see any prohibited substances. I am absolutely shocked that deer antler spray may contain a banned substance and am angry that I have put myself in this position. I have been in contact with the PGA Tour and am cooperating fully with their review of this matter. I will not be commenting further at this time."
Yeah, maybe … but I'm still bitter about prized rookie selections from my baseball card collection becoming worthless because the players were retroactively exposed as “dopers,” after TV deals and new stadium deals and so much more was financed on their backs. But I don’t see how “doping” is a big deal, for Singh, Lewis or anyone else. What about the sports organizations that ban substances and issue pious decrees? History shows there's always been a way around such bans.
Why wouldn’t an athlete, given the short window he or she has to succeed, utilize every available pharmacological advantage? How many ads for habit-forming, transformative substances — ranging from processed foods to libido boosters — run during any sports telecast?
The PGA Tour, despite Singh’s relative forthrightness on this issue compared to, say, Roger Clemens in front of a Senate subcommittee a few years ago, seems likely to suspend Vijay. No big loss for fans. Singh was always a “golfer’s golfer”; the Fijian clubman never “crossed over” into the popular consciousness the way Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods did. Despite his success, Singh-o-mania didn't explode. And it's almost certain his best game is behind him.
Soon enough, Singh will be back, however. His measured, thoughtful response suggests his deer antler spray use will be a footnote to a distinguished career. Maybe sportswriters, instead of having trumped-up hysterics like they have with many athletes over the years, will learn a lesson from all this: Performance-enhancing drug usage just isn’t that big a deal. It could be rightly considered just the price of doing business.