It is the central premise of some of the great film noirs and Hitchcock movies: The innocent man wrongly accused. What would you do if you were going about your daily life, with all the stresses and joys and banalities, and were suddenly accused of a horrible crime? No one believes you. The authorities are trying to find you and throw you in jail. Your name is splashed across the papers: Murderer. What do you do? How do you prove your innocence?
I think about this whole Hitchcockian notion sometimes when the sports world starts pointing fingers at alleged PED offenders. In the public consciousness, PED usage -- insanely, but undeniably -- is a capital felony offense in the world of sports, bested perhaps only by, well, actual murder. (But not manslaughter or rape.) If you are stained with the PED black mark, everything you've accomplished in your life up to that point is called into question: You're aren't only considered a liar in your professional life, but in your personal one. All you worked for and all you built, it can be gone in an instant. It's the equivalent of a banker cooking books, or a doctor writing fake prescriptions, or a writer plagiarizing. It's the worst possible thing you can do.
The difference between the banker and the doctor and the writer, though, is that to take those people down, you need proof. You do not need this to sully the reputation of an athlete: You only need to imply it. Chris Davis is having the best year of his life, which means every feature story you read about him mentions PEDs, which means he has to respond to it, which means he has to not look defensive, which means people keep asking to see if he'll respond differently, which means down the rabbit hole we go. At this point, every athlete in sports is, in a way, the innocent man wrongly accused. (Uh, except for the ones who aren't wrongly accused.)
So it's fascinating to see how athletes handle it when they are accused without any proof. (Which is all the time.) I think I've narrowed down the reactions to five. Some are more effective than others. Note: Few of these reactions have anything to do with whether or not they actually did the PEDs. We're just talking about being accused without concrete, public proof.
Admit it. This would be the Andy Pettitte strategy, though it's worth noting that you don't want to admit everything. You want to admit that you tried PEDs, and that they didn't do anything for you, and regardless you just feel terrible about it. Call it the "I didn't inhale" defense. This only works if the world already likes you so much that they're willing to parse this for you. So: You probably have to be Andy Pettitte. This strategy is not recommended. Ryan Braun, when he was confronted with Biogenesis "proof," tried it, and that guy's gonna get booed worse than A-Rod next year. (It helps when you're not a weasel.)
Screw the haters. This would be the A-Rod strategy. Admit nothing, give no quarter, dig your feet in and never, ever back down. Sometimes this strategy can work, particularly if you are the mayor of Toronto. The problem is that the people who use it -- A-Rod, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens -- generally don't care about their public personas (or, like A-Rod, have long since lost control of it) and therefore are unpopular in the first place. So you typically only use this one when you have, say, nearly $100 million on the line.
Ignore it. This is the most common reaction. You just don't want to dignify the accusations with a response. (For an example of doing something the exact opposite of dignified when it comes to unfounded accusations, see: Piazza, Mike.) This one doesn't do you any good either, though, because it makes you look aloof, like you have something to hide. Silence is seen as tacit admission. If he won't defend himself, there must be a reason. Of course, defending yourself brings its own set of problems.
Get really angry and take action. Raul Ibanez was the first to do this in the ole Jerod Morris kerfuffle of 2010 -- "I'll come after people who defame or slander me," he said. "It's pathetic and disgusting. There should be some accountability for people who put that out there." Albert Pujols took it a step further when he announced last week that he was suing former Cardinals slugger and current (or former) radio feller Jack Clark for accusing him of PED abuse 10 years ago. This one is the most forceful response, and it probably makes one feel a lot better, but it's sort of pointless. You're not going to win the case anyway, and all it does is just prolong the story in the press. (It's The Streisand Effect.) Also, even your reaction is suspect: Maybe he's protesting too much. This ultimately just compounds the problem, to no actual positive result.
Be flattered. Now here's one I'd never seen until yesterday, and I think it's brilliant. Adrian Peterson, in a USA Today story about HGH use in the NFL -- or, more accurately, a bunch of people pretending that anyone cares about PED use in the NFL -- did something that's best considered "turning into the skid." When asked how he responds to PED accusations, he said:
"Seriously. Especially with the amount of work I put in guys say that to me, or if I hear someone saying that - it makes me feel good. When you know you don't do it, and someone's saying you do, you're like, 'Wow. They think I'm on HGH? I'm doing that good? Well, hoo! Thank you, Jesus!' It's a compliment. I don't get mad about it at all."
This is terrific. It essentially accomplishes three things:
- Makes you look superhuman naturally.
- Positions you as above-it-all, looking down from the mountaintop at those poor mortals who have to use drugs, pshaw.
- Tacitly acknowledges that HGH makes you better at sports, a much more honest discussion of the drug, which, I remind, is being used commonly outside the world of athletics.
It makes absolute sense that Adrian Peterson -- perhaps the most amazing athlete in American team sports right now -- would come up with the only appropriate response to PED suspicions. Every athlete should now do this. "Drugs? You think I'm on drugs? Aw, man, thanks: I kick ass."
Of course … this defense only works if you are not actually on drugs.