Why You Shouldn’t Care About Lance Armstrong

Every professional athlete is cheating, in some capacity. 

I’m not saying that every successful athlete is taking testosterone shots to their back side three times a week.  I’m not saying that all pros are ingesting HGH at carefully selected points during the month.  But on some small level, every modern athlete is cheating. The level at which that cheating is crosses over from “strong work ethic” to “performance enhancing” is arbitrary.  Sports science and sports medicine have both developed to the point that we need to consider the possibility that we need to get rid of the idea of cheating via PEDs all together. 

That Lance Armstrong allegedly was “blood doping” during his seven Tour de France titles matters not.  After all, as was pointed out today, 41 of the 70 riders who finished in the top tens of those races has been busted for PEDs as well. This is a sport where one could argue that you weren’t even really competing unless you were cheating.  And that’s pretty much true for all sports in the modern era.

While the extent of the cheating varies from sport to sport, it exists in every major professional sport.  It’s a product of the unquenchable thirst to push the boundaries of the human body farther and faster than they’ve ever gone before.  A wide receiver loses a step or two, get him off the field!  An outfielder only has warning track power, cut him!  Shooting guard X can’t even dunk anymore, leave him on the bench! We’re all to blame for it which is why we shouldn’t care that it exists in any capacity.  These athletes are obligated to cheat if they want to compete at the insane levels required of professional sports.

Let’s just get this over with really quick. The common misconception with PEDs is that athletes use them primarily to get stronger.  While getting stronger can be considered a nice consilation prize, the primary purpose of using PEDs is to recover more quickly from injury, however major or minor that injury might be.  Basic excercise “injures” the muscles in some small capacity and through the body’s natural processes, the muscle rebuilds itself stronger for the next time.  The faster that rebuilding process takes place, the better.  By having muscles that aren’t injured, the body is more responsive in athletic activity.

Ask yourself an honest question, at what point does an athlete’s use of a foreign substance constitute cheating in your mind?

How can a person honestly argue that ingesting a protein shake after a workout is any different than using HGH?  The desired outcome is the same.  Both protein and HGH work to help the body recover from the workout.  Why is one substance perfectly normal and accepted as a legal rehabilitation method while the other is not?  Protein powder is a manufactured substance, mass produced for the sole purpose of helping people recover from workouts.  Why isn’t HGH available in the same capacity?

The ONLY, and there is only one, ONLY argument that can be used to stymie the use of performance enhancing drugs is with regards to the safety of the human body.  To which I’d counter, regulate it!  Regulate it like alcohol.  Regulate it like tobacco.  Make people aware of any health problems that come with its abuse but then let them have at it.  To come up with an explanation that some substances provide individuals a significant advantage while others do not is as asinine as the NCAA trying to justify the existence of amateur athletics.  There is no point anymore.  Let’s get rid of the hypocrisy all together and just admit it happens and try to regulate it so that some teenager doesn’t cause long-term damage to his kidneys by secretly shooting himself up too often with anabolic steroids.

And this doesn’t even get into the really ground-breaking area of PEDs, the type which Armstrong’s case ventured into.  What if performance enhancing drugs come from the very body with which they will eventually go back in to?  That’s sort of complex.  Here’s the easy way of saying it: how do we feel about guys like Kobe Bryant having their blood withdrawn, spun in a centrifuge, and then shot back into parts of their body?  It’s not a natural process but the ingredients, if you will, are all natural.  Are we as a society really going to try to sit down at a table and figure out which procedures like this are okay and which ones constitute cheating?  I don’t see columnists and sports anchors across the country crying foul over Kobe, but I’ll be god damned if Lance Armstrong dropped a little EPO into his blood!  That’s a god damn shame I tell you!  A shame!  And, oh yeah, what does EPO stand for again?

Exactly.

If there’s one thing that history has taught us during steroid scandals, it’s that the scientists and the athletes are always three steps ahead of the people trying to regulate it.  There are vastly superior resources devoted towards always pushing the bounds of sports science as opposed to regulating it. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and emotions to keep insisting that we need to continue persecuting the alleged “cheaters.”  Instead of having another pointless Salem Witch Trial, why don’t we take a proactive step and actually encourage safe experimentation and consumption of these products?  End the charade once and for all and I promise we’ll all be a lot happier as sports fans.

So seriously, sit down today and try to come up with “the line” at which you consider an athlete cheating today.  Hit me back in the comments even at which point I’ll dissect your argument 1,000 times over for its flaws and hypocrisies.  And if you still think PEDs are the devil, well, you’re probably a fan of the BCS and Skip Bayless.

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Brief Thoughts On A Weekend Filled With Great Sports

Hey bet you didn’t realize how awesome this upcoming sports weekend is. Fear not! We have you covered ranked on every event, starting with the worst:

The Belmont Stakes: We had a chance at a Triple Crown but in case you didn’t hear yet, I’ll Have Another was forced into retirement this afternoon with a bum leg.  By all accounts this was one of the shadiest runs by a horse ever so this really isn’t a loss for sports fans.

Stanley Cup Finals, Game Five: The Kings are undefeated on the road during the playoffs and we don’t expect that to change.  Los Angeles will bring home the greatest trophy in all of sports for the first time in franchise history.  We really feel bad for hockey.  A great start to the playoffs was sabotaged by a lack of superstars in the later rounds as well as the NBA’s success.

NCAA Baseball Super Regionals: We’re a bit biased, admittedly, being graduates from TCU and all.  There’s a great rematch though between TCU and number two overall seed UCLA.  It stems from their battle two years ago in the semifinal of the College World Series.  While lacking any “star” the Frogs have a deep pitching staff to go with a suddenly sizzling lineup whose bats woke up after an opening loss to Ole Miss in the first game of the College Station regional.  Since then the Frogs have rattled off 50 runs in five games. 

Prometheus Opening: Indulge your inner sci-fi nerd.

French Open Final Featuring Djokovic/Nadal: This match is a BIG DEAL based on everything that’s happened in the last 12 months and speaks to what a great weekend it is that it’s only number three on this list.  Last year Federer upset the Djokster in the semis so we were robbed of a clay court meeting between him and Nadal which sucked because Djokovic so thoroughly dominated the rest of the calendar.  This will be the most fascinating meeting of their recent rivalry, given that it is by far Nadal’s best surface.  If ever Nadal was going to end Djokovic’s astonishing run, it will happen in the French.  Also: if the epic Australian Open final was any indication, this is going to be a very special match.  A must-watch for any true sports fan.

Euro 2012 Opening Weekend: This by rights should be number one on the list.  It’s by far the best international soccer competition, World Cup included.  The talent in Europe is at an all-time high right now and there will be no shortage of great games, most especially from the the group of death that features four teams in the top ten of the world rankings (Denmark, Portugal, Germany, and Netherlands).  There are three must-watch games this weekend (Netherlands vs Denmark, German vs Portugal, and Spain vs Italy).  The tournament is made more fascinating by the fact that should Spain win, they’ll go down as the best dynasty in any sport, having won consecutive European tournaments and the World Cup in a span of five years.  The two favorites to knock them are off Germany and Netherlands.  Your sleepers are France, Croatia, and Russia.  Several of the teams feature recognizable stars as well if that’s what you’re looking for (England with Rooney, Sweden with Ibrahimovic, and Portugal with the best player in the world right now Cristiano Ronaldo).  Our pick is the Netherlands to spoil Spain’s dream run.

NBA Eastern Conference Finals, Game Seven: It has to be pretty big circumstances to unseat a major soccer event like the Euros, but that’s exactly what’s at stake in this game seven.  The future of the NBA for the next five years very well may be decided, what with the rumors of a potential Heat breakup if they don’t advance.  We’re looking to LeBron to repeat his game six masterpiece and for the Heat to move on to face an exciting OKC team that has no care in the world who they face.  It also has potential ramifications on the Boston side as well.  Could a devastating loss spell the end of the big three era sending either KG or Ray Allen into retirement?  Would Doc Rivers walk away from the team in order to spend more time with his family?  There are lots of “what if” questions that will be resolved based on the result of this game.  It will affect the sports world in a big way during the next 12 months and is the can’t-miss sporting event of the weekend.

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A Sports Dork’s Nirvana

Something special happened last night. The San Antonio Spurs achieved a feat that we get the pleasure of witnessing no more than five times a year in the sports world. It happens so rarely that at time fans and athletes alike forget that it even exists in sports.  Coaches preach of its virtues and try their damnedest to instruct their teams in the way of attaining it.  Most fail.  Last night, during the third quarter of a playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder,  the San Antonio Spurs achieved athletic perfection.  Watch (scroll to the 1:46 mark of the video, if it doesn’t start there automatically):

It began around the 11:06 mark in the third quarter and lasted until about the 5:15 mark.  During that span, the Spurs were a breath-taking juggernaut, scoring 25 points on 9/11 shooting including a startling 5/5 mark from the three-point line.  The spacing, cutting, and ball movement among the Spurs players was something that led many a NBA analyst remarking that he had never witnessed passing at such an elite level.  And what’s remarkable about the passing is not only each player’s ability to read the defense and make the correct play, but also that the passes arrive in exactly the spot that a shooter needs it in order to take a good shot.  Remember that a half second can mean the difference between a wide-open three and having your shot blocked on a close out, given the speed of NBA players (think: Westbrook). 

Every Spurs read and subsequent pass was perfect during this stretch.  It all culminated in that excellent behind-the-back pass from Manu Ginobli to Tony Parker in which the Thunder’s transition defense was so taken aback by the wide-openness of Parker that they let him take the three without a single player running out to challenge the shot.  Parker took his time, squared his feet, and knocked it down.  Of course he did.

The three readers of this site know by now that my favorite sports article of all-time is a David Foster Wallace’s “Federer As Religous Experience.”  At its most simplistic level, the piece details Wallace’s fascination with the greatest tennis player in the world at the peak of his powers.  Better than perhaps any individual who ever attempted to do so, Wallace is able to describe what it is that makes witnessing Federer so powerful to a sports fan.  He discusses the impossibility of his shot-making and the brilliance of his decision-making.  The genius of the piece, to me, eventually defines what’s appealing about watching competitive sports played at a level like that, to which Wallace writes:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.  The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

What Wallace describes is athletic perfection.  We’re attracted to it because it happens so rarely.  We delight in it because of the sheer impossibility of it all.  For about six minutes last night the Spurs were able to achieve that.  To be honest, I could not even tell you the last time I witnessed it on a basketball court.  I’ve seen it happen in soccer multiple times in the last three years with Barcelona and Lionel Messi.  The St. Louis Cardinals found a little bit of it in their World Series run last year.  Eli Manning seems to find it once every five years or so, but only when his team is trailing late in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl to the Patriots.

To a sport dork like myself, it’s why I devote so much time to consuming sports content every day.  Although I admit that I do take a sicker, darker pleasure in seeing my home-town teams succeed, there is nothing purer as a fan of sports than witnessing something like that.  I’m reduced to being a fan of the game itself which is really what it should be all about in the first place.  It’s also far easier to reconcile the countless hours spent watching, reading, and studying.  For most people a championship every decade or so suffices.  For me it’s these sporadic glimpses of greatness.

I guess what I really want to say is that if you’re any kind of a fan of basketball or sports in general, you should be tuning in right now to watch the San Antonio Spurs to see how long this lasts.  They have a legitimate shot at sweeping the entire playoffs, a feat which has never been accomplished.  More importantly for you though, you might get to witness a breath-taking stretch like occurred last night.  When you finally are able to let go of living and dying with your team and enjoy the purity of rooting for great sports, you’ll learn to love the games in ways that are infinitely more rewarding.

Trust me, I’m a sports dork.

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What The Champions League And NHL Playoffs Teach Us About Sports

It’s impossible to refrain any longer. The people have demanded it. After the past couple of weeks’ results, it’s finally time we address the striking manner in which the NHL and the UEFA Champions League resemble one another.  That’s right readers, brace yourselves.  I’m totally about to spend an unnecessary amount of words and time comparing hockey and soccer to see what it teaches us!  I know, I know.  I don’t understand why ESPN hasn’t brought me on yet either.

Before proceeding, it’s quite necessary to give you all a bit of background, because if you’re anything like the rest of America, you have yet to catch a single second of the NHL playoffs and missed the Champions League all together.  And who could blame you?  Hockey and soccer aren’t exactly separating themselves from the pack in the Nielsen ratings.

For the last half of the decade in the 2000s, the sports of hockey and soccer were largely dominated by what can only be described as offensive-oriented styles of play.  For hockey, this was exactly the intention as the league made a conscious effort to change the game in the wake of the infamous lockout that crippled the sport’s popularity.  The NHL increased the size of the offensive zone, outlawed tactics that prevented scoring (grabs, interference, etc), among other measures.  Basically they were trying to prevent anything and everything the New Jersey Devils stood for in the neutral zone trap era.  It largely worked.

In soccer, the sport became that way because of the success of two teams.  The first was the Spanish club Barcelona which successfully executed the best “home-grown” talent initiative in the history of sports.  They produced world-class players like Iniesta, Xavi, and the incomparable Lionel Messi on their way to numerous championships and trophies.  The second team was not surprisingly the Spanish national team which largely looked to capitalize off the success (read: copy) of the domestic club Barcelona, using many of its same players.  What characterizes Barca and Spain is that they utilize a possession-heavy style of play.  That is to say, they have control of the ball for the majority of the time during their matches.  Rather than make one quick attempt at a goal when they gain possession, these teams are content to pass and control the ball for long periods at a time until the defense finally gives them a window to score.

For anyone who romanticizes sports and “the way games were meant to be played,” the last couple of years have been a godsend in these two sports.  The games finally seemed to “open up” and let the athletes showcase their extraordinary talents with a puck or with a ball.  To witness Lionel Messi in open space is to catch a glimpse of the sort of religous experience David Foster Wallace so famously described when he witnessed Roger Federer back at Wimbledon all those years ago.

Not surprisingly though, teams that lose don’t tend to like to continue losing.  When a club wants to change its fate in a sport there are two ways to accomplish it.  The first is to try and replicate the success of the team that dominates you and beat them at their own game.  This is amazingly difficult as there is simply no way to field a team in soccer that could replicate the chemistry and talent built from the years that the top players at Barcelona have played and trained together.  In the long-term, it’s totally possible, but as we all know, top sports franchises don’t tend to have that kind of patience.  This is commonly referred to as George Steinbrenner syndrome.

The second method is possible to achieve in the short-term though.  The magical cure? Create a style of play that completely counters that of the rival.  Furthermore, pursue and sign those players that make that style of play possible.  Translated in present day terms for hockey and soccer, adopt a completely defensive-oriented style of play that chokes the life out of opponents.

This is going on as we speak and it’s fascinating to a sports dork like me because it brings about yet another chapter in the most important debate in the history of sports: what’s more important, style or winning?  The answer isn’t as simple as you’d think, most especially in soccer where some of the most famous teams in the history of the sport never won anything.

So how did it happen?

In hockey, it’s been more of a slow evolution across the sport to counter the offensive genius of guys like Ovechkin and Crosby rather than having one person we can point to and blame.  Former Red Wings and Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman recently described the transformation in a recent article for The Globe and Mail.  The essence of his discussion is that this style of play has its roots in the late 70s Maple Leafs teams that were attempting to put a halt to one of the greatest dynasties in the history of hockey in Bowman’s Canadiens teams. 

The strategy goes something like this.  In hockey the team on offense typically keeps one player (the two defensemen) in each area where the blue line meets the boards on the opposite sides of the ice, known as “points.”  Historically the defensive team kept their forwards out to press against these defenders which created a lot of space for the puck to be passed around in the zone.  To counter this spacing, the Maple Leafs reacted by pulling those two forwards back and essentially creating a wall around the net, known in the NHL as “covering the house.”  In giving up their forwards at the points, the defense concedes the ability to score quick counter-attack points by starting fast breaks though.  However, they have the tactical advantage as they’re basically playing hockey 5 on 3 near the net, preventing any offense, and can block almost any shot before it reaches their goaltender.  The result, as you’ve probably surmised by now, is a complete lack of scoring.

Soccer is a bit more curious in that we can largely place the blame on one man who seems to have been placed on earth entirely for the purpose of solving the Barcelona problem.  His interests also likely include telling children that Santa Clause doesn’t exist and stealing candy from babies.  That man is Jose Mourinho, the current manager of Barcelona’s chief rival Real Madrid and who first conceived the strategy to defeat Barca back in 2010 while he manged Inter, a popular club in Italy.

His strategy is simple, really, and it’s probably not fair to credit him entirely for constructing the model that finally ended Barcelona’s reign atop the soccer world as almost every club attempted the same tactics.  The idea is that the team is willing to place 10 of its 11 players back on defense to prevent Barcelona from entering the box.  The idea is to let them pass the ball all they want, so long as it doesn’t get near the goalie.  Like with the “covering the house” strategy, they give up most of their chances at creating a quick counter-attack, but in turn they’re able to block almost every shot attempt.  There are two other key ingredients which any supporter would hate to hear but are nonetheless true–get really, really lucky and score the only chance you get.  More often than not, this formation will only yield a single scoring chance a game for the side that chooses to adopt the defensive philosophy.

The strategy was made even more famous just this past week by the English club Chelsea which back doored its way into the most unlikely of Champions League titles by perfectly executing this ultra-defensive style.  Not only did they manage to defeat Barcelona in the semis, but they also slipped past Bayern Munich in the final, the team that most closely resembles Barcelona with its possession-heavy style of play.  It was the most improbable of runs, made all the more dramatic with their win in penalty kicks.  As thrilling as it was though, the soccer itself was ugly and lacked for drama.  Most fans widely accepted that the match would, in all likelihood, end in a 1-0 result.  This nearly occurred, except that Chelsea’s Didier Drogba scored a late equalizer on Chelsea’s only corner of the whole match.  Again, one great chance and they made it count.

And thus we come in a roundabout way back to the great philosophical question of sports.  Is it more important to have style or to win?

It is no secret that the history of sports is filled with players, teams, managers, and even leagues reacting and countering specific styles of play.  Think of how the NCAA banned the dunk, MLB lowered the height of the mound, and the NFL adopted rules to encourage and protect great quarterbacking.  Remember the way the fast break goes in and out of style, the way pitching wins championships until it doesn’t, and how you want to control the football with the run unless you have Tom Brady or Eli Manning.  One action promotes a reaction and so on and so forth until we come to a point that we even