A while back, I spent part of the morning in a medical office in an East Bay office park, waiting for a man to emerge from a hyperbaric chamber. A competitive athlete in arguably the toughest discipline, combat sports, his oxygen fix was part of his pre-fight routine — that, and smearing great gobs of a marijuana-infused goo over his body to chase away the aches that come with endless burpees, leg-locks, choke-holds, and — so I was told — bench-pressing three times his own weight.
The weed rub, his seven-grams-a-day smoking habit: All part of his routine to prepare for the big fight he had a few days later. He wanted to share the good news, so I wrote the story. He lost the fight.
A few months later, he called me out of the blue with a demand: Remove the story from the Internet. None of it was true. I'd gotten it all wrong. I hadn't — and I had the interview on tape to prove it — and soon enough it came out: He'd had trouble booking a fight ever since our talk, and he suspected that the interview wherein he extolled weed's power for an elite athlete was the reason.
He had a drug problem. And it's not just his.
Drugs are everywhere in sports. From the gym to the diamond, from high school to amateur softball to the Olympics, everyone, it seems, is on something: supplements and pain pills, deer antler dust and outright endocrine chemistry experiments.
There are a few things most can agree on: Steroids and performance-enhancing drugs are dangerous and bad (but very good for business). Transform your body using the right supplements, though, and you're good.
Some sports are slowly getting it right. Combat sports, which banned Northern California-bred UFC title contender Nicky Diaz several times because he liked to put marijuana in his body, have joined with the Olympics in increasing the amount of THC allowed in an athlete's blood by a factor of 10.
Major League Baseball is not. Baseball still no idea what to do, as evidenced by the spuriously sourced purge of the man once considered the greatest living player by sanctimonious, erratic fans.
The NFL, in many ways professional sports' most abusive and exploitative syndicate, is changing its ways. After condemning marijuana-smokers to perdition — get caught with pot and you were a “liability,” with “off-field issues”; get addicted to painkillers, like Brett Favre, and you're a warrior who conquered his demons — the league last week budged and said that it might, in the future, allow players to use medical marijuana.
Giving players allowance for their legal rights is the least they can do, after smashing their bodies and brains to bits feeding the profit machine. That last weekend's pre-Super Bowl games were played in cities where cannabis is legal is surely a coincidence.
Yolo County, where California's best and brightest future farmers learn their trade, isn't a place celebrities frequent, though there's one former A-Lister who would love to be here. Maybe someday Lance Armstrong will be in the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. He did more than anyone else alive to get Americans excited about the Tour de France, including winning through doping and lying about it for close to 15 years.
Probably not. He is a pariah, and his LIVESTRONG bracelets are in landfills. Sports abhors a loser or a quitter, but sports hates a cheater that much more. That everyone cheated — or just the people who mattered — is irrelevant. As quickly as you became a legend, you will become a monster.
The question isn't whether drugs are good or bad. They are clearly both, often within a very short stretch of time. Athletes are on drugs, and will be. There is no stopping it, and often no finding it.
The question is whether sports — the athletes competing, the fans consuming, and the select few profiting off of it all — can start being honest with itself. Until then, an abusive relationship will continue.