In my callow youth, I wanted to be a sports writer.
That’s not how my life turned out. I found another passion, helping people who have sustained traumatic brain injury, fighting their battles in court. But I still love sports and good sports writing.
I recently came across one of the best examples of sports journalism I’ve ever read. It is a long piece by Grantland/ESPN columnist Bill Simmons about how sports writers have covered — or more accurately, not covered — the issue of athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs.
It’s a remarkably candid, hard-hitting column where Simmons doesn’t spare himself or his fellow writers. The gist of the story, and please read it, is that sports writers never dared to really raise questions about athletes using steroids to enhance their performance, despite the mound of evidence that it was happening.
Simmons chastises himself for not daring to tackle the issue, because of that American concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” Lance Armstrong was long suspected of using PEDs, and seemed to have gotten a free pass from the press for years, for example.
Former NFL linebacker Ray Lewis, when 37, recovered from a torn triceps muscle and was back playing, better than ever, in just 10 weeks, Simmons pointed out. Pretty suspicious, right?
“I would have wagered anything that God didn’t miraculously heal Ray Lewis’s torn tricep,” Simmons wrote. “I never actually wrote this. Alluded to it, danced around it, joked about it … just never actually came out and wrote it.”
Players such as Bobby Bonds and Mark McGwire racked up more home runs than Babe Ruth, but they had a little help that he didn’t. Yet, Simmons says, no sports writers dared in print to raise questions about what was going on.
“We ignored their swollen noggins and rippling biceps,” Simmons wrote.
“We weren’t fazed by seemingly inexplicable surges in production, or even something as fundamentally perplexing as a 37-year-old doubles hitter suddenly hitting 50-plus homers. We didn’t just look the other way; we threw heavy burlap bags over our heads and taped our eyeballs shut. And because we never stepped up, those enterprising dickheads bastardized baseball and ruined one of its most sacred qualities: the wholly unique way that eight generations of players relate to one another through statistics and records.”
On the current list of yearly home-run records, Bonds has 73, McGwire has 70, and Babe Ruth has 60.
“That list is dead,” Simmons wrote. “It means nothing. McGwire’s generation made it fundamentally impossible to put power numbers into context for the rest of eternity, basically.”
The sports press corps looked the other way through all this PED stuff, and more. And here is when Simmons talks about an issue close to my heart.
“We look the other way when FIFA accepts bribes for World Cup bids, or when it turns out the NFL never really cared about player safety until there was a massive concussion lawsuit coming,” he wrote.
Does any sports writer really think the NFL was concerned about head injuries 10 years ago, or even five years ago, when it was denying any link between concussions and permanent brain damage? The league ratcheted its efforts up a notch when more than 3,000 current and former players filed suits against it.