The Drugs Don’t Work

Notes on Vijay Singh, Jimmy Smith and Justin Blackmon


The Players Championship was perfect, if you like redemption narratives. Tiger Woods found his mojo and his form, and his body looked better than it has in years. As someone who spent a lot of the 1990s watching athletes perform in everything from pro baseball to professional wrestling achieve these flawless physiques, I felt a stir of recognition. Woods isn't a young man anymore, but his pecs were impeccable, and his victory at The Players restored the sanctity of his narrative. Nike's new Tiger Woods shoes, for example, were hot sellers before the win. Now? Good luck finding them, even at $180.

America loves a winner. But what happens when winners don't win or stop winning? Things get real. That brings us to the story of Vijay Singh — one of the best golfers in the world at one point — who's making news these days more for scandal than for anything he does on the course. At 50 years old, Singh tied for 78th at The Players and came out of the event no richer than he went in.

Singh recently filed suit against the PGA for "violating its duty of care and good faith" regarding his recent deer antler velvet scandal. According to the lawsuit, the Tour "failed competently and responsibly to administer its own Anti-Doping Program. … As a direct and proximate result of the PGA Tour's actions, Singh has been humiliated, ashamed, ridiculed, scorned and emotionally distraught."

At The Players, he wasn't exactly ridiculed — except by a spectator who razzed him by wearing deer antlers the first day. Perhaps that's a measure of respect for a veteran with one of the most impressive résumés of all active professional golfers — or perhaps it's a measure of the Fijian's irrelevance. Golfers half his age, such as Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, are the present day of the sport. At this point, Tiger Woods is an old-guard figure himself. Singh? Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard." He might be "ready for [his] close-up," but he doesn't seem able to produce at a level befitting his reputation.

That said, I have to give him props for challenging the arbitrary drug testing regimens of pro golf and pro sports at large. The players brought down by drug testing are never your marquee guys, in any sport. It's always someone whose marketability has peaked, or a young guy on his way up whose superstardom is no sure thing. Singh is in the first category — though he never was that marketable. He was a "golfer's golfer," a technician, not a ratings draw.

"The PGA Tour has now finally admitted that the use of deer antler spray is not prohibited," the suit claims. "Rather than performing its duties to golfers first, and then determining whether there had been any violation of the Anti-Doping Program, the PGA Tour rushed to judgment and accused one of the world's hardest-working and most dedicated golfers of violating the rules of the game."

Why wouldn't the Tour rush to judgment? Drug testing is to actual compliance what speed traps are to road safety: a Band-Aid on a gaping wound, a simulacrum of effectiveness that leads to symbolic victories.

Speaking of Band-Aids on gaping wounds, I was saddened to hear about Jimmy Smith getting a six-year sentence for cocaine possession and possession of a firearm in Mississippi. A great wide receiver, Smith was unique in his willingness to be candid on and off the record. Yet it's clear to anyone who's talked to him recently that the man needs help.

Smith has long seemed on the precipice between sanity and lunacy, and the same demons he found repeatedly in Jacksonville over the years were in abundance in Mississippi. The local sports media has been moralizing the parallels between Smith and Justin Blackmon, the Jaguars wide receiver suspended for four games in the upcoming season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy — the typical narrative of white sportswriters with their own demons casting aspersions at black athletes.

Smith likely will emerge from prison more broken than he went in — and likely will have no trouble scoring dope inside. But prison, when it comes to drug cases, is less about rehabilitation and more about fueling the creaky, amoral machinery of the drug war. Six years might as well be a death sentence. The greatest Jaguars player of all time, arguably. Clearly, that greatness comes with a price to be paid for a long time.

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