All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
Rumors swirl, evidence comes out that an athlete used performance-enhancing drugs, and fans and writers stake out their position somewhere on the spectrum between outraged-and-disappointed and shruggingly indifferent. Then we have the same discussions we've been having for a decade or more. (Unless it's a football player, in which case everyone is shruggingly indifferent, for some reason.) Only the names change -- well, usually. In this case, not only have we already had this conversation, but we've already had it about Alex Rodriguez.
On Tuesday the Miami New Times reported that a number of athletes have been linked to a shady Florida doctor who allegedly kept records of their illegal drug use. It's worth reading the full story, if you haven't yet. Those athletes include Rodriguez, who admitted to earlier steroid use in 2009, as well as Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon, busted last season, and Nelson Cruz and Gio Gonzalez, never previously linked to performance enhancers (Gonzalez denied any connection). It's not physical evidence, so you could argue that maybe the doctor was lying or maybe the records were fakes, but the evidence is extensive.
Rodriguez, for his part, is flatly denying all allegations, in a statement strident enough to give you pause:
The news reports about a purported relationship between Alex Rodriguez and Anthony Bosch are not true. Alex Rodriguez was not Mr. Bosch's patient, he was never treated by him and he was never advised by him. The purported documents referenced in the story -- at least as they relate to Alex Rodriguez -- are not legitimate.
That's strong language, leaving very little room for backtracking. But of course, Rodriguez spent many years lying about steroid use, and his claim that he'd only ever used for three years, conveniently stopping on his own just before joining the Yankees, always strained credulity. The real question now, though, is not "how mad should everyone be at Alex Rodriguez?" but rather "since this keeps happening, how can we start talking about and dealing with PEDs in a more productive way?"
Whether or not we ever manage to make the use of performance-enhancing drugs a rarity in sports, we should at least be able to find a way to break the cycle of PED revelation, upset and stale debate. Steroids are a fact of life in the modern athletic era, and sports discourse is chasing its own tail.
Use of performance enhancing drugs is an odd sort of transgression. It's not entirely victimless -- clean players feel pressure to use, which can have a negative effect on their health, but they may lose money if they don't, and suffer competitively; fans feel misled and dislike being lied to. But PED use is still minor enough that much of the hysteria around it (especially compared to potentially far more damaging crimes, like drunk driving or domestic violence) has come to seem overwrought. Partly in reaction to that, other fans dismiss it entirely: Who cares, I just want to watch the games.
We don't need to agree on how "bad" steroid use is. It's not wrong to care, and it's not wrong not to. But what this conversation badly needs are facts. Just how much, exactly, do steroids help athletes? How prevalent are they, really? What are the health risks, long-term? It's hard to see how we can react to the issue intelligently when there's so much information missing.
Meanwhile, in Rodriguez's case, more interesting than the same old song and dance is the report that the Yankees are working to void his contract. There's no precedent for that, and little reason to think it could succeed, other than wishful thinking. Were they able to do so, presumably the Yankees would be delighted about the PED use that opened the door, since that contract is a massive drag on the team: $28 million next year for a 37-year-old player who's been declining for five straight seasons, and is coming off a serious hip injury that could have kept him out for the season in any case -- just when the team is straining to stay under a $189 million payroll.
So they'd be crazy not to explore their options, but it's the longest of long shots. Rodriguez never tested positive, has not been legally charged with anything, and the Players Association would fight any such move tooth and nail. Still, you have to wonder if, at the very least, this is an issue that will be addressed at future bargaining sessions, and whether one day future contracts could include any such wording.
That sounds like a strong deterrent or at least a welcome safety hatch for teams, but the Players Association wouldn't be wrong to oppose it. After all, if Rodriguez were making less money and aging more gracefully, New York wouldn't let him out of his contract even if he swam laps in a pool full of steroids. In the end, for just about any professional sports team, PED revelations may be an embarrassment, but actions will be determined by money and performance. That's not necessarily a negative, but it's yet another on the list of things we need to be honest about if we're going to get anywhere.
If we don't want to have the same debate over and over again until we all go mad, we need to change the argument. We need to figure out what information we're missing and how to get it. And we need to be realistic about PED use and about motives, costs and benefits to players, teams, fans and writers. Otherwise we'll be reading these exact same columns about Alex Rodriguez's grandson in 2063.