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August 9, 2013

NASH: The integrity of the game

— Earlier this year cyclist Lance Armstrong, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, announced that he had used performance enhancing drugs after years of denial. He has been stripped of his Tour de France titles and was banned from competitive cycling for life. He had been the face of cycling for more than a decade and the only cyclist that most Americans could name at all.

For many years cycling has been rumored to be tainted by doping allegations. When the most dominant cyclist ever revealed his involvement in the conspiracy, it brings into question every participant, at least for the last few decades. I was a casual follower of the Tour de France since the Greg Lemond era, catching at least some of the race each year and following it daily in the newspaper. This year I didn’t have any interest and couldn’t tell you the first detail about what happened.

On July 25 Milwaukee Brewers’ player Ryan Braun was suspended for the remainder of the 2013 season for violating the league’s drug policy. Braun was the 2007 National League Rookie of the Year. In 2011 he was voted National League Most Valuable Player. He has been a five-time all-star and five time Silver Slugger award winner. In 2012 he was the National League home run leader.

This week Major League Baseball announced 50-game suspensions for 12 players. They also gave what amounts to a  211-game suspension for slugger Alex Rodriguez. This is the largest non-lifetime ban penalty in the history of baseball. At the time of his suspension he had yet to play a game this year for the New York Yankees. He immediately appealed the suspension and has played the last few games for the team.  In three games he has gone 3 for 11.

  Major League Baseball has a serious image problem. Over the last several years they have been plagued with problems stemming from their weak position on performance enhancing drugs. They have looked the other way for so long it is hard for them to now act like they have a tough hand when it comes to punishment for drug use.  

When Major League Baseball had its World Series cancelled in 1994 due to a labor dispute with the player’s union, many people decided that baseball wasn’t that important. A few years later when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire began hitting homers at a record pace, some of those who were turned off began to watch again.  Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in a season was going to be eclipsed after more than 35 years — the only question was who would break it and by how many?

A few years went by and Barry Bonds began knocking dingers out of the park. He was able to eclipse the single season mark and was within striking distance of Hank Aaron’s all-time record. People tuned in to watch again even though many people believed that the record was tainted due to Bonds’ alleged ties to the use of steroids.  

Now that baseball has cracked down on performance enhancing drugs the feats of McGuire, Sosa and Bonds are all in question. They currently rank 10th, eighth and first on the all-time home run list. Many believe that those three will never make it into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Many people believe their careers are too tainted by the scandal and they do not deserve it.

Rodriquez has appealed his suspension and will continue to play until a ruling is made. As one of the highest paid players in all professional sports he has a lot of money on the table over the next few years. If the suspension is upheld he will be almost 40 by the time he is able to return to the field. Would a team be willing to take him back at that age and with all of his baggage?  

 Other sports have not been immune to the problems concerning performance enhancing drug scandals. Even smaller fringe “sports” have developed policy including NASCAR and professional wrestling’s WWE. Many of the other major sports leagues have tried to be proactive when it comes to punishments. They have also not seen some of the major names in the sport blemished by allegations of wrong doing.

 Major League Baseball will probably survive what has been dubbed “the steroid era.” In order to do that  they need to maintain the veracity of their testing and punishments.  Many of the records that have been established will probably be noted in the record books as being blemished. Until they can prove that players have not used performance enhancing drugs to prolong their careers and boost their stats the integrity of the game will always be in question.

— Matthew Nash can be reached at dmatthewnash@gmail.com

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