The announcement yesterday by the Canadian Centre For Ethics In Sport that Waterloo Warriors' running back Matt Socholotiuk had tested positive for HGH was just the latest twist in a months-long saga that has enveloped Canadian Interuniversity Sport. However, the announcement itself wasn't really about Waterloo or CIS football at all. The above CP video makes that pretty clear; CCES president Paul Melia briefly mentions the Waterloo case, but spends most of his time talking about how this proves that professional sports leagues need to start testing for HGH. That isn't just selective editing, either; I caught most of his televised news conference on CBC Newsworld yesterday, and his focus there was similar.
Of course, there is a larger professional sports context to this story. The NFL is approaching a contentious CBA discussion where HGH testing will be a key issue, an American college baseball player was just caught with vials of HGH, and the drug might just turn into the next contentious frontier of performance-enhancing drug coverage. Most of the media coverage has focused on the professional sports angles, including widely-picked up pieces from CP and QMI; I spent a fair bit of my piece yesterday discussing those angles as well. There's nothing wrong with that per se, as that's a crucial part of the story, but it's important to keep the larger context in mind; why this is news, who's driving the story, and who's being hurt by it.
It's not particularly great that negative news around CIS football gets much more play than all the good things happening on the field, but that's also understandable. The public appetite for steroid scandals is much bigger than the appetite for Canadian university football coverage, and I doubt that will change any time soon. However, as Yahoo!'s own Neate Sager wrote over at The CIS Blog, all the coverage of this saga focusing on implications for professional sports is giving CCES and Melia exactly what they want; a forum for grandstanding on the evils of performance-enhancing drugs.
SB Nation blogger Andy Hutchins made an interesting comment to me after reading yesterday's piece, asking "Is Paul Melia Canadian for Dick Pound?" Former World Anti-Doping Agency head Dick Pound is obviously Canadian as well, but I think the key point there is that Melia's conference yesterday sounded exactly a smaller, Canadian-centric version of the soundbites Pound used to deliver on a global scale. Remember Pound claiming without any proof whatsoever that a third of NHL players were using drugs, or saying the CFL's lack of a drug-testing policy was proof the league had major drug issues? Melia's comments yesterday could have come verbatim from Pound's cue cards, with one exception; Melia actually had a positive test to build on instead of just baseless speculation.
It all comes down to one basic fact of life; guardians need a credible threat to guard against. Without the ominous spectre of performance-enhancing drugs, CCES (and WADA) wouldn't have much to do. That's not to say that they have no role, or that they shouldn't conduct drug testing, or even that they shouldn't have held a press conference yesterday. It's just to point out that they're far from objective on anything involving performance-enhancing drugs; working to achieve "drug-free sport" is prominently listed in their mission statement, after all. They need people to care about performance-enhancing drugs, and that's why they play these results up to the media and the public with press conferences like yesterday's. Tommy Craggs had a good piece on WADA at Deadspin last month (language warning), discussing the organization's stance on anything vaguely related to drugs:
"It's an organization of professional hysterics. These are not serious people. These are lunatics and hucksters, and it's not the job of sportswriters to give credulous coverage to their medicine shows whenever they roll into town."
Performance-enhancing drugs are a big issue in today's sports world, and they're a controversial one. Cheating in sports isn't a particularly new issue, though. For all the steroids hysteria of the last few decades, it's worth remembering that athletes have always done what they can to get even a small edge, from corked bats to excessive pine tar to spitballs, from amphetamines to illegal sticks, from to secretly videotaping teams to stealing signs.
It's also worth remembering that the line between what's illegal and what isn't is a very tenuous distinction, full of shades of grey rather than the black-and-white divide anti-doping organizations try to portray. For example, pain medications such as Oxycontin and Vicodin could be considered "performance-enhancing" under some definitions, but they're common in football circles (even if they're closely controlled and can cause major addiction problems). Cortisone is a steroid hormone, but it's commonly used throughout sports to reduce swelling and allow players to play through some pain. Heck, you can argue that drinking coffee enhances job performance, especially early in the morning. If so, that would make me a PED user.
None of the above is intended to justify the use of performance-enhancing drugs, or to claim that CIS and CCES were wrong for thoroughly investigating the Waterloo situation and reporting what they found. As I wrote yesterday, the CFL's new drug policy and willingness to pay for increased testing of the top CIS prospects is a largely positive move that could help to level the playing field and reward those who choose not to take PEDs. It's just worth keeping in mind that there are agendas driving this issue, and that there are innocent victims who get wrapped up in the scandal as well; the 53 of 62 Waterloo players whose tests came back clean but whose lives have been altered nonetheless by their program's suspension come to mind. They weren't on the podium at yesterday's press conference, but they're just as important to this story as Melia and his grand pronouncements. PEDs may hurt people, but so do PED-related punishments.