Athletes Endorsing Drugs

February 10, 2009 | Thyrl Nelson

Intentionally or not, both Michael Phelps and Alex Rodriguez provided resounding endorsements for the drugs that they were caught using, and compelling questions for the arguments against them.


With little action happening on the field in the sports world this month, luckily it would seem that the media has found plenty of “sports related” stories to keep busy with in the meantime. Whatever your take may be on the unfolding sagas of Michael Phelps and Alex Rodriguez, there have been few weeks in sports that I can remember that have done so much to hurt the anti-drug lobby in America.


How you feel about each of their situations likely depends on a great number of factors. But each has been equally damaging to the youth of America who will emulate their favorite sports stars, like it or not.


When it comes to Rodriguez, some will see the offense as being worse, because the illegal drugs that he now admits to using were taken specifically to gain an edge in baseball. Since most consider that to be cheating, it’s easy to find fault with Rodriguez. Others though would argue that if Rodriguez were putting his career and reputation on the line, at least he did so for professional reasons, rather than recreation. Further, it could be argued that taking steroids in baseball between 2001 and 2003 was the norm, and to not succumb to the culture would have been to simply accept a disadvantage.


The tougher argument that may come from this is why now, should any young athlete not consider taking steroids in order to gain an edge themselves, other than the fact that they may be caught? The steroid users have rewritten the record books, and totally changed the standards by which we measure athletes today. The record books are a virtual who’s who of juicers, but all of the side effects that we’d been warned about aren’t being reported about anywhere.


For all of the outrage over the steroid era in sports, the only real horror stories that have come about are about those who were caught and labeled cheaters, or about what happened to a number of players’ careers once they allegedly laid off of it. Steroids have been a part of baseball culture for the better part of 20 years now, and probably a bigger part of the cultures of other sports then we’re willing to admit, yet there are no real horror stories of guys going through all of the promised negative side effects of steroid use. Lyle Alzado, John Matuszak and Tommy Chaikin were all years ago, before this era of designer steroids. Those guys have likely been dismissed by modern juicers as early, misguided pioneers, much like the first recipients of Tommy John surgery. So other than being labeled a cheater, why now should the youth of America not look to steroids for an edge?


The other inconvenient truth that Rodriguez’ situation has brought back to light is that the modern steroid user doesn’t always look like we’d expect them to. Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco were easy ones, but A-Rod, Raphael Palmeiro and even Roger Clemens were guys that we regularly dismissed from the steroid discussion based on physique. Now, everyone is a candidate. (Although I am still giving the benefit of the doubt to Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez among modern hall of famers based on physique alone)


As for Phelps, his offense is certainly less heinous than Rodriguez’, but probably much more stupid. Phelps after all, unlike Rodriguez or any other number of famous knuckleheads, is not a professional athlete. Phelps is a professional pitchman, nothing else. Where other athletes can excuse their own selfish behavior by rejecting the idea of being a role model, their skills can be looked at as a curse that keeps them unwontedly in the public eye, despite their best intentions. Those guys get paid to play football, or baseball or basketball, and do just that; most don’t see much endorsement money.


Phelps on the other hand gets paid to encourage people to be like him. That’s what his endorsements are, “Eat what I eat”, “Drink what I drink”, “Use the same credit card, cell phone, watch, language learning software, everything that I use”. That’s how Phelps makes his money. If it wasn’t working, do you think he’d be cashing big endorsement checks?


How you feel about marijuana will have a lot to do with where you fall on this one. But again the question arises. How do you tell your kids not to smoke weed, when the most accomplished and decorated Olympian ever does it? How many kids, at that inevitable coming of age moment, when they’ll make the decision whether or not to take that first toke, will be able to deal with the logic that it can’t possibly hurt you, and Phelps is proof?


Where you fall politically on either of these issues is actually quite another matter. The point is, that although certainly inadvertently, Phelps and Rodriguez both gave ringing endorsements for the drugs that they were caught using. Each will have an opportunity to do public service work going forward that could help to minimize the damage, but neither can stop the inevitable compelling arguments that they have created against the national policies on their respective drugs of choice.