Do you remember where you were when you heard the news Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games for taking a banned substance? Of course not.
This is mainly because, well, it’s Melky Cabrera. But this is also because we will never again be shocked by a pro athlete being busted for a failed drug test.
(With that said, you should take a moment and read ESPN.com’s account of Melky’s efforts to cover it up, complete with a fake website. It reads like a spy novel as written by Sacha Baron Cohen.)
This is how far we’ve fallen from the days of Ben Johnson. The Canadian sprinter was stripped of a golf medal for doping in the 1988 Olympics and was never heard from again. Even the guys back in the late 1990s and early 2000s — the Barry Bondses, the Mark McGwires, the Roger Clemenses — lost their careers, faced legal investigations and are going to be kept out of the hall of fames. True, they aren’t societal pariahs. McGwire is a hitting instructor for the Cardinals. Clemens and Bonds will, no doubt, be back to the game at some point. But they faced SOME lasting scorn.
Those guys were busted in the last decade, but it seems like a lifetime ago, given how far we’ve come in just five years. If you get caught with steroids today, it’s just a speed bump to years and years of more success.
If Ryan Braun continues on the track toward a hall of fame career, do you think his failed drug test will be used against him? (Yes, he got off on a technicality, but the stink of steroids is still attached.) Do you even remember David Ortiz was linked to performance enhancers? Any chance Alex Rodriguez faces the same Hall of Fame snub as Bonds?
We’ll never know what happened with Lance Armstrong — unless he just decides to “confess” — but it doesn’t really matter. We will continue to believe he came back from life-threatening cancer to complete an athletic feat that is unrivaled in the history of cycling, during an era of rampant doping, and did so completely, 100 percent free of anything other than ginseng and multivitamins.
You would think after McGwire and Sosa laid waste to the history books more ‘roided out than the entire WWE combined that we would never again be duped. But we are. Constantly. And we don’t seem to mind.
Our defense mechanism seems to be an assumption that everyone is doing it, so when Melky Cabrera increases his batting average .70 points at the age of 28, we just look at it with a raised eyebrow and place bets on how long it will take him to flunk a drug test. And then when — surprise — he does it, we pat ourselves on the back for being so smart.
It’s an odd reaction — instead of turning our distrust of the purity of physical success on the athletes themselves, we just don’t believe anything they do, and when we’re proven right, we forgive them quicker. It’s like we blame ourselves for making them cheat.
But here’s the sad part: Sometimes the Melky Cabreras of the world DO raise their batting average .70 points in one season. Sometimes they DO study film or lose weight or hit the gym or stop drinking or see a sports psychologist or get motivated by a new contract or “have it all come together” — any of a hundred excuses guys have used for decades to explain why their careers catch fire. It does happen. It didn’t happen to THIS Melky Cabrera, but it COULD happen to A Melky Cabrera.
But once you lose your innocence, you can’t regain it. Even during the Olympics — which has been at the forefront of stringent drug testing — we can’t help but let the cynicism spoil the fun.
When Michael Phelps does something no person has ever done, we just sort of silently hope he is half dolphin and not 100 percent HGH. When Usain Bolt runs faster than human beings are allowed to run, we listen to how much longer his stride is than the competition and agree with the scientific results, while trying to quelch that little voice in the back of our head screaming, “CHEATER!” When Ryan Lochte invites ESPN to see his new, fancy work out (apparently it involves flipping over large tires and throwing heavy objects in the air) we convince ourselves that, yeah, large tires CAN improve your breast stroke at age 28. Totally reasonable.
We WANT to believe, even if we know, deep down, we never will again. It’s sort of like (spoiler alert) that time when you were a kid, and your friend told you Santa Claus was bullshit, and it all made complete sense, but you still hung to the notion for a few more months or years, because it was just so much easier to believe than deal with the reality that there is a grand conspiracy created to foster a lie.
Our relationship with sports and athletes has always been a complicated one. We can never figure out the rules, because the rules always change. You don’t even have to be human to cheat: NASCAR drives cheat with their cars and jockeys cheat with their horses. Nothing is safe.
It used to be booze and drugs, now it is steroids, tomorrow it will be robotic arm sockets and nanotechnology enhancement. Eventually, when androids replace all athletes, the one thing that will make them most human is their desire to breaking the fucking rules.
And we will turn a suspicious eye to the future android athletes and try to make sense of it all, knowing that we never can.