Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Something like the truth with so-called Waterloo steroid scandal

The volume of linkage below says it all with what happened at Waterloo on Monday.

The Warriors football team getting benched for 2010 even made The New York Times, plus it was in sports sections in U.S. cities such as Charlotte, Kansas City, Knoxville and Minneapolis where much of the readership hitherto was unaware Canada has college football. Even the Ottawa media noticed, actually calling the Warriors "one of Canada's most storied university football programs." (It's definitely in the top two in the Kitchener-Waterloo region and in the running for the top 26 nationwide.)

Rob Pettapiece, who will be a UW alumnus by the end of the week, had his rebuttal to the decision. My paying gig should be priority, but as so often happens when the quote, unquote real media cover a CIS story, there are some myths that have to be debunked.
  1. That this is only a one-year suspension.

    Greg Layson
    gets credit for this point. Waterloo has looked to cut expenses. Rob has alluded to UW's indifference to its profile in major sports such as basketball, football and men's hockey. It has a kickass women's rugby team, which is win-win since it's a growth sport which does not cost much to run.

    That is why it is reasonable to think Waterloo football ain't coming back, despite the predictable day-after denials swallowed whole by the drive-by media.

    It's a simple plan.

    • Do an amplified impression of Claude Rains in Casablanca ("I am shocked! Shocked!") about players being on steroids.

    • Imply upstanding student-athletes knew but didn't tell (see Point 2).

    • An across-the-board punishment which is not entirely unjustified.

    • Come back in a year and plead hardship, saying they're isn't enough money for football and the scandal killed recruiting.

    • Not have football again.

    There is a chance all is on the up-and-up and Waterloo comes back in 2011.

    It is going to be a long, long road back to respectability. Football players aren't like basketball players. They don't go to a school for a chance to start as 18-year-old rookies, since most know they need time to get faster and stronger.

    Some of you are probably aware of when the NCAA gave Southern Methodist University's football team the death penalty in the late 1980s. The Mustangs sat out 1987 and '88. A program which counted NFL greats such as Eric Dickerson and Dandy Don Meredith as alumni needed 21 seasons before it made it back to a bowl game, even though almost every .500 team in the NCAA goes to a bowl.

    It's possible UW looks at this in a year and says, "Too hard, don't bother."

  2. That we should presume total innocence on the part of players who did not test positive.

    It is possible to have compassion for the players who do not have a 2010 season without striking up a symphony of small violins.

    One Toronto bird-cage liner ran a column headlined, "Innocent held hostage at Waterloo." It somehow neglected to mentioned there is an extant police investigation that will try to find out what coaches and players know and when it became known.

    Teams win as one and lose as one. Society in general seems loath to accept collective penalties, but it's hard to believe that the majority of the players in the Warriors locker room did not know something was up. There are no secrets in a team's subculture, hence that further investigation. Athletes, like anyone else, are supposed to call out unethical behaviour.

    One of the more illuminating quotes from a player came from Jordan Verdone, the promising linebacker, in the Toronto Star:
    "I’m not upset with them at all. Everyone that got caught is a hard working person. They actually loved and cared about football so much that they wanted to become better."
    Not to turn into Dr. Cal Lightman, but does that ring of someone who had no idea his teammates could be doping? Maybe or maybe not. There is a part of human nature where we try to rationalize behaviour, especially when a different action might have staved off a cruel twist of fate. And losing an entire football season is a cruel twist of fate, no matter how it is inflicted.

  3. This pertains only to the present-day team and nearby OUA schools.

    The crux of a steroid scandal is it cast doubt on anyone who has a sudden spike in performance. It gets applied retroactively. Everyone knows now that steroid use baseball didn't magically start in 1995 when they were trying to get fans back after a strike cancelled the World Series.

    That is germane to CIS. The book is open on the past 10, 15 years, since anyone picking up a paper now knows how it easy it was to sidestep doping controls:
    "A football staff member, for example, can choose which numbers go in the hat. And if a player chosen happens to be absent from practice that day, he’s off the hook.

    "You can see how easily a team could protect players who might be suspected users."
    How far back the investigation will stretch depends on what police need to know and, to some extent, how much Waterloo admins want to know. One goal of an investigation is to establish patterns of behaviour, how things were always done.

    That is not to suggest anything indecorous happened at Waterloo prior to 2009. Let's call this is a historical sports irony. That roughly 1995-2005 period is now associated with a lot of drug scandals in sports. There was baseball with Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds (my prediction he'll never spend a day in jail is looking better each day), Marion Jones going from golden girl to U.S. federal prison inmate, Floyd Landis losing his Tour de France title, people snidely calling the 1996 Atlanta Olympics "the HGH Games."

    No one talked about this on Monday since they likely don't remember, but Waterloo won its only two Yates Cups in 1997 and '99, running Hall of Fame coach Tuffy Knight's venerable wishbone option.

    It seemed ironic that when all that was going on the great wide world of sports, a school typically synonymous with second-division status in OUA football won its only championships. It also did so with a run-based offensive scheme that required blockers who were agile, but beefed-up enough to overpower opponents. And shielding players from a drug test was as easy then as it was as late as last fall.

    That's only being pointed out to illustrate what kind of tangents people go on after a steroid scandal.

    Waterloo is an open book going back 10, 15 years. The same goes for neighbourhood rival Laurier, especially after its players weren't tested when the CCES showed up on campus.

  4. The University of Waterloo taking the high road with steroid abuse.

    The only pee Waterloo cares about is in PR. This all harkens back to some fat, dumb and bald guy said last fall in regard to another egghead school cancelling its fall homecoming weekend.

    Universities, especially Ontario institutions that aspire to elite status, are little more than paranoid public relations vehicles these days. They are so quick to come down on any kind of bad behaviour that could mean negative headlines that stayed cached on Google forevermore.

    They could have gone ahead with the season. It would have been a tougher call to pull the plug on a winning team. It was easier to use a 3-5 team as a political football and show the university, in institution-speak, doesn't take these matters lightly.

    Did you notice Waterloo director of athletics Bob Copeland was left to make the announcement instead of university president David Lloyd Johnston? Johnston wasn't about to get the taint on his suit. I'll say it: he should have made the announcement.

  5. The media's concern about steroids in the CFL and CIS.

    It is a good story when a university takes a knee on an entire football season.

    The subtext to why there was so much coverage is part monkey-see, monkey-do and part is that excrement runs downhill. Everything that happens in Canada typically follows in the shadow of what has already happened in the United States. The U.S. media went through its period of high dudgeon and righteous indignation over athletes being goosed up on steroids. We're a little more into shades of grey in Canada, but we still needed one to make our own.

    Waterloo was built right to spec, a legitimate news/sports story and a vulnerable target. People have commented that how it's funny that people got bent out of shape about juiced baseball players, but gave the NFL a free pass. The latter is a sacred cow. In Canada, the NHL is a sacred cow. Insinuations about doping or player misbehaviour are almost always rebuffed with extreme prejudice.

    It's a little easier to put the focus on football and little easier to go after CIS. It's petty to ask, "Hey, TSN, since a CIS 'scandal' led Sportscentre, does that mean you'll make more of an effort with covering the basketball and football championships?"

    At least we understand why they played it up in such a way. Canadian football's lack of a drug testing policy could have been an issue long ago. Odd how that works.
I have about run out words on the subject. Some sort of punishment was needed. Honestly, you should read Bill James' 2009 essay that says in future generations, everyone will be taking some form of steroid, once the health risks are controlled.

In the here and now, drug testing in CFL and CIS needs sharper teeth, even if it's more for keeping up appearances.

UW suspends football team’s season in wake of steroid scandal (Christine Rivet, Waterloo Region Record)
Waterloo steroid scandal a 'wakeup call' says University of Regina's director of athletics (Ian Hamilton, Regina Leader-Post)
Solutions elusive for CIS doping problem (Bruce Arthur, National Post)
Waterloo doesn’t shirk dirty work (Randy Starkman, Toronto Star)
Plugging the loopholes; Dobie applauds off-season tests (Paul Friesen, Winnipeg Sun)
Coach trying to fix 'collateral damage' (Perry Lefko, sportsnet.ca)
No football for a year: captain 'sick to his stomach' (Greg Mercer, Waterloo Region Record)
Waterloo suspends football program over steroid use; Waterloo’s 2010 season ends after nine adverse drug tests confirmed among players (Allan Maki, Globe & Mail)
Innocent held hostage at Waterloo; University of Waterloo’s harsh solution leaves normal kids left out in the cold (Steve Simmons, Toronto Sun)
Doping scandal bombshell; University of Waterloo Warriors football program has been suspended for a year (Ryan Pyette, London Free Press)
Sevigny disappointed but not surprised by steroid scandal (Greg Davis, Peterborough Examiner)
Suspension a 'black eye' on university football, says Huskies coach (Matthew Wuest, Metro Halifax)
Collateral damage (Rob Massey, Guelph Mercury)
Argo stunned by Waterloo revelation (Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun)


Dennis Prouse said...

For an opinionated guy, I am kind of conflicted about the whole Waterloo situation. You make a very good point about the administration doing this largely for PR purposes, and the cycnicism about the program not ever returning is justified. Having said that, the fact that so many players at one school tested positive screams, "lack of institutional control". Not only did nine players get nailed, but there was a guy on the team dealing - there is just no way to sugarcoat that. I feel sick for the guys who just saw their football careers end through no fault of their own.

If there is one silver lining, it is the fact that a long overdue chill just got sent through every last CIS football team dressing room. You can bet that every last head coach will be taking a long, hard look at his program, making sure he isn't next up.

sager said...

Thanks for the comment, Dennis.

A gut feeling is CIS football has a steroid problem that is marginally more serious than that of general society. I honestly feel like Buck Swope when he gets turned down for that bank loan in Boogie Nights: "Stop saying 'Waterloo scandal!' " instead of pornography.

Were athletes using? Of course. Welcome to the 21st century. Guess what? If you eat meat, you're probably consuming some form of steroid too.

My conflict is why this was allowed to slide for so long and suddenly now the media is being so sanctimonious about a league it barely acknowledges when it is actually playing games.

Is it because ...

-- the U.S. media had all its steroid sturm und drang in the mid-aughties and now we have to go through it too?

-- because CIS is an easy target, compared to the NHL? It's the same as how the US media went after baseball but turned a blind eye to the NFL.

-- because Boomers are now in charge and want reassurance that their bad example they set did not have an effect on younger generations' behaviour?

That would explain the "zero tolerance" culture. You have people arguing we should drug test high school athletes. I happen to think we have laws against unreasonable search and seizure, and you don't to get to force a 17-year-old to urinate a cup before she can run the 400 metres.

We already have a problem with high school kids not participating in organized sports; my friend Jeff Dertinger wrote a great column about it recently. Drug testing would make more kids not want to participate.

-- Because it gives the media a chance to send an "important message" (Toronto Star) that winning isn't everything?

-- Because only the podunk CIS would be so honest to a fault?

It is a sports body run by bureaucrats for bureaucrats. Waterloo cancelling its season after the great finish to '09 is akin to the NHL locking out the players after the Rangers ended their Cup drought in 1994.

The hell of it is the thought they had some positive momentum with the media after the Yates and Vanier Cups never even entered the equation. I can't help but think they were more concerned about getting more money for CCES than giving the student-athletes control of their game.

So this happened, they found their needle in the hay for steroids in CIS football, and were only too willing to blow it all out of proportion. Waterloo happened to be a school that was more concerned about burnishing its image and could give a crap about football.

Yet CCES didn't manage to test Laurier at all, even though they showed up when spring practice was being held.

All anyone will talk about when next season rolls around is Waterloo. Once again CIS gets judged by one of its weakest links.

There's a very good argument that maybe this would be mitigated by a better-organized, more competitive CIS football league. Waterloo, because of institutional indifference, was doomed to be 3-5 or 2-6 almost every season. Point being, the players had little reason to think a positive test would blow a championship season.

Dennis Prouse said...

Testing high school kids is beyond ridiculous. I coached that age group for years, and I can count the number of kids on one hand whom I thought might have been at risk to use PEDs. How many of them did I suspect or know were abusing alcohol? Plenty.

I believe the same holds true to some degree at CIS. Are there some kids using? Of course there are. I will still bet, though, that your average CIS team has more kids with a drinking problem than with a steroid problem.

sager said...

Exactly ... and universities largely turn a blind eye to drinking. That's someone else's problem.

TheGuysmily said...

Why wasn't the Laurier "confusion" about testing times not a larger issue? I can apprecate that drug cheats in hand (UW) are more important than potential drug cheats but why was the CCES so seemingly disinterested in making a big hairy deal out of it? If anything, the Laurier "supposed" mix up suggests an equally alarming organization philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Suspending the Waterloo football program not only is throwing the baby out with the bath water, it's pouring gas on it and lighting it on fire.
So the affected players can transfer...swell.
How practical can that be?
Maybe a handful of players could take advantage, especially at this late date.
Thanks for nothing.
So what if 6 out of every 7 are clean...you're all guilty!

Dave said...

Plenty of kids using PED's in lil' ol' Belleville Ont high schools in the 80's - early 90's. We all knew who they were. Lots of wannabe junior hockey players popping ephedrine and lots of other stuff now. AND abusing alcohol. Maybe it's the same percentage give or take as the Waterloo situation. A genuine shame at the typically Canadian knee-jerk politically-correct zero-tolerance response. For the sake of a few cheaters, you've just ruined the whole university experience for 40 others, not to mention further ruined the sometimes apathetic view taken toward sport in this country. There are shining examples of school/athletic spirit in this country, and you'd like to think this wouldn't happen at a place like say, Western. Then again, Queen's cancelled homecoming and you hope this isn't the thin point of the wedge. Shameful. I tend to agree that this may get used as a convenient way to drop the program by the academics. Of course, I am shocked (shocked!) that these people don't seem to think that sports, like all the other ancilliary activities taking place at these institutions, are so vital to the overall experience. Part of the package, which binds students, staff and alumnus together. Without it, why not just study online? Shame on Waterloo.

S. Training said...

I would be this is representative of what is happening in all schools, not just with football but all sports programs. Perhaps drug testing should be mandatory at the university level. The player who commented that one person ruined it for everyone - 9 players were found to have taken anabolic steroids - 9 people made that choice, not just one. Your anger should be directed towards all of them. Finally Dean in Abby - most of these players are over the age of 18 and therefore are not children, they are adults making adult choices and now dealing with adult consequences.