A Nichey Niche Convo - The Straight Dope(ing in Sports)

Diggity Doc - El Wildcardo, I'm gonna lead with a topic that we haven't really got into and that's doping. It's part of a group of issues in sport including concussion, technology, match-fixing etc. Where are you at with doping at the moment?

Wildcard - G'day Doc. Where am I at with doping? About three needles deep. But that's no endorsement. Umm... it's an odd one because it does lie with those other issues and like concussion and match-fixing, it falls in the 'definitely awful, terrible, killing the sport' side of things with 99% of people. But I do think it's more complicated than that. The Russians have apparently been doing it to win Olympic medals, yeah that's bad. Can't be giving people unfair advantages like that - especially in sports decided by centimetres and split-seconds. However doping (my theory anyway) is pretty prevalent in team sports too, especially in and around player recovery. And here's the thing: I'm not fussed by it. I hate injuries in sports and the sooner dudes can get back on the pitch the better. Like in a sport such as football, a little extra strength and endurance helps but it won't make you curl a free kick any better. I reckon it's murkier than people realise.

DD - So a mass performance enhancing program scares you a lot more than cheeky assistance in recovery time? That's about right as I've got to the point where so many people are already bordering on doping with all the supplements etc that are available and as we've seen there's plenty of people who want that edge and are willing to risk it all for that edge.

WC - Yeah I mean that's the biggest problem I think is that the line between what's legal and what isn't is so thin and blurry and ever-changing. There are so many new chemicals or drugs or whatever being discovered all the time and the authorities cannot be expected to keep up. I remember reading a thing a while back about the supplement culture among the gym bunnies and how it was leaking into doping culture because a fair chunk of those are illegal for athletes but getting recommended by the iron-pumping dudes at the gym. I think the fight for athletic integrity with doping is a losing battle - or at least one that will always be ongoing - but it's a noble one. LIIe, they have to try. Dunno 'bout you but the free-for-all idea that some people float around seems pretty farcical to me.

DD - Well that's where we hit a spot of bother right? A free-for-all is over the top yet we get served up doping scandals each year. I wouldn't oppose a free-for-all if it was confined to a 'Shame League' type of thing where the athletes would have to accept that they are dopers ... thus tainting their reputation.

WC - That's interesting, I wonder how well that's work. I mean, it's a sorta sad fact of modern society that the court of public opinion holds the power to completely destroy lives and careers (while also being so easily misinformed). The main problem I'm thinking is that you'd still have to identify the dopers to shame them, so it's basically the same system but without enforced repercussions. The other thing here is that you get guys taking things that they didn't realise were illegal, whether by accident (there is some dodge over the counter stuff out there) or doctor's orders (and some dodgy MDs too). Remember Shane Warne's excuse  in '03?

DD - It could be fun though having various sporting leagues full of dopers, it would be like a big science experiment! Ah yes and it was the same for the Cronulla Sharks and the ASADA scandal where the team doctor tells you to take something and you do so because that's what any normal person would do.

WC - Yeah like you don't really have a choice but to follow the advice of the trained medical professional. Otherwise society is in a bit of a wreck, it'd be like if we couldn't trust the police that are there to protect and serve us... hmm. Arsene Wenger's actually made some comments recently about how he's never allowed for recovery doping with Arsenal which has been followed by yet another injury crisis for the Gooners. Wenger's always trying to put the moral high ground above week-in-week-out results but that's a curious coincidence. Not saying that's why there are all these injuries (playing an already injured Alexis Sanchez didn't help). Just saying... do we really have any idea what goes on behind closed doors in these places?

DD - Amen to that sir. Well we all know how ravaged by injury Arsenal have consistently been so maybe Wenger's missing the trick? I would love to do a study of various professional sports teams and what they give their players in the 24 hours after a game. When you see vision of the changing rooms they have fruit, protein shakes etc laid out for the players and I wouldn't be sniffing around to expose dopers, it would just be fun to see the difference between teams in same league and the NRL vs Premier League for example.

WC - There's probably plenty of collusion, and this comes back to the ever-changing guidelines. Like, substance A is illegal, but substance B is not and it does the same thing - it just hasn't been properly tested yet by WADA or whoever. Because what's illegal for an athlete is very often not illegal for Jerry Citizen. Such a complicated thing, but yeah, I'd be super interested in that study too, for scientific reasons because there's no doubt that players are treated so much better these days in those regards (hard to imagine the post-game boozers in most sports these days - short of winning a championship - let alone the numbers of smokers in, say, 1970s English football). It'd be pretty enlightening to get the unfiltered inside word. Did you see that the Rugby World Cup was doping free? (Or so claim World Rugby, at least).

DD - I did indeed and it is a mark of the times that this was celebrated by being news. It was as if everyone was really proud of it, whereas in theory this is how it should be. This raises a weird thought about the lack of doping in contact sports where you would assume it would be more prevalent right? In rugby, rugby league and the NFL there is a benefit in being bigger, faster and stronger yet doping cases in these sports aren't as common as other sports. Most importantly our backyard is fairly clean which is great, in true kiwi spirit.

WC - Oh, man, you brought up like three great points there. It's not news that the Rugby World Cup was PED-free... it was PR. Nothing more. And all that means is that they didn't find anyone in their random drug testing, not that nobody was doing it. You'd think it would be more prevalent in rugby and league too, not only those but in all similar sports. The NFL has a bunch of cases every year where people fail tests and get 4-6 game suspensions but the biggest drug suspension of this season was Josh Gordon, WR for the Browns, who was banned for all of 2015 for repeatedly testing positive for recreational (i.e. non-performance enhancing) drugs. You hardly get any info about these, they're dealt with swiftly and swept under the carpet. Which is in stark contrast to how certain other off-field things have been dealt with in that sport. Steroids in MLB, obviously, are an epidemic, not as bad now as in the 90s but still pretty common, while in the NBA - same country, same sporting culture - there's next to nothing. Pretty odd, that. Maybe the sport doesn't lend itself to PEDs because of its nature or maybe they just don't care that much. Then the NZ thing... we like to pat ourselves on the back for these things, I guess. I actually believe that this country is mostly clean, and our bubble is one in which the shame chamber would work perfectly. But I'm not sure our attitude towards our cleanliness is so healthy. I'm still horrified by some of the reaction to Nadzeya Ostapchuk and that whole saga.

DD - How so? 

And once you've explained that, tell me how you feel about Tom Burgess working out with the NY Giants.

WC - Well it was so... sore loser-ish. To the point where I was almost disappointed when that talk-back chat was vindicated by the positive test. And, like every other NZer, I love Val Adams and wish her all the best and she deserved the gold, clearly. But then she got this big celebration in town in place of having a podium celebration in the moment and that's cool for her but it felt like the crowd was there for another reason. As if they were there to wallow in our own Clean Green NZ nature, with a streak of snarling justification about it - a one-finger salute to the thought that our approach may not work, which is ideological and naive, and then Ostapchuk turned into this sloppy punchline which was pretty disgusting. Very classless in many regards. As for Big Tommy, fair play to him! My understanding is that the Bunnies have given him consent in the idea that he might pick up a few things to bring back. As it happens, the Giants are my single most-hated NFL team so... hopefully he breaks a few bones while he's there.

DD - So you view this as a serious taster for Burgess or something else?

WC - Well it's mid-season so the Giants are maybe a lil desperate and if he shows he's got something to offer them then who can say. But for Burgo, I doubt as if he's going all in here in the way that Jarryd Hayne did coz, like, that was insane what Hayne did and it still doesn't get the recognition it deserves for the risk he took and is still taking. I think for him it's more like a trial trial in case he decides to take it seriously in the future. Do you think it's weird that the Rabbitohs were cool about this whole thing? Or is that normal or are they bluffing?

DD - Well it was just a 'work out' which immediately lessens any expectations. Burgess is interesting because he only signed a one year deal with the Bunnies, opening himself up to rumours that he's keen to give the NFL a crack, which he and the Bunnies both denied. I think because of that deal, the Bunnies don't have much choice as they will know Burgess' plans much better than you or I.

WC - That's one year on top of his current deal, though right? Their statement said he's booked 'til 2018 - not that they could stop him if he walked away, since he'd effectively be retiring. Sonny Bill set the precedent there. It's funny coz while I was researching this before, I came upon the headline: "Thomas Burgess: I don’t feel overshadowed by Sam or other brothers". Now, I dunno 'bout you but I don't believe that one bit. He's the third best player in his family, he'll always be in the shadow, especially with Sam coming back. So I reckon he might be more open to this than most other NRL guys in his situation. A tight end, apparently. One other question: If he actually does leave, does that figure out the Rabbitoh's salary cap issues?

DD - It could do but as you said, he's on the books for 2018 so as far as clearing Sam's contract it would probably be a year on year thing. They need to off-load a few guys to fit Sam under the cap for 2017 and then you would assume they will be able to build a roster around Sam and his large salary in 2018. This is where greater transparency with contracts, like they have in the NBA etc would be awesome right?

WC - Oh for sure. I'm so on board with that idea, but then in Australia they don't seem to do things by common sense, it's been a common theme that we've noticed recently and it isn't getting any better in the A-League either, that's for sure. I think more transparent contract knowledge would be tied in with a more rewarding player movement system too, which is a personal gripe of mine. I hate the signing with new teams while you're still playing for another thing. Not a problem for the players, who are pros, but it's conflicting for fans. And imagine mid-season trades like in America, that'd be great fun.

DD - Indeed, I'm glad you raised the A-League issue there. I saw a list of the FFA's um .... acts of sillyness in the past year or so and when you see that list there's no wonder why fans feel a certain way. I don't think there is an organisation in our part of the world who have done as poor a job as the FFA. Despite the A-League being a pretty fun league to follow.

WC - Yeah, and I'm never 100% down with fan boycotts because it feels like you're punishing yourselves more than those you're truly going after, but I guess it's a way of taking noticeable action. They tried it in Newcastle last year in the Premier League, to some effect but whether the boycotts were the tipping point or not is debatable. And of course the Welly Nix (& Yellow Fever, specifically) have had to support these things from a distance because lesser crowds damages the licence debate which is another of the idiotic dramas the FFA is responsible for. What a clown show. Can you see them backing down, though? Right now Gallop and co. seem more likely to keep doubling down on their own madness.

DD - That's the main problem mate as they have a proven track record of drama/shenanigans. Also, they don't really seem to own their mistakes instead opting to blame the fans for example. Anyway, enough of those silly Aussies. What's perking your antenna this weekend?

WC - Haha, my antenna's being perked by the respective unbeaten streaks of the Golden State Warriors (20-0) and Jamie Vardy (11 games in a row with a goal). Fascinating stuff, Doc, one from a champion team, the other from a complete underdog. Hey and I guess you can throw the Carolina Panthers in there too, 11-0 in the NFL. Man, if Monday's games are anything as good as the finish to the Packers-Lions game then it'll be a week for the ages. Plus the Nix at North Harbour and maybe a lil cricket on the telly too. Have I missed anything?

DD - How about these streaks!? Hopefully we're still marveling at these teams/athletes come next week huh? Nah chief, it's relatively quiet times before the BLACKCAPS are back in action against Sri Lanka so enjoy your dose of foreign sport and hopefully you can find a stream or catch the replay of Joseph Parker's fight.

WC - Oh, nearly forgot about that. Third big TV fight in three weeks, this one's bound to be the quickest of them too. At least we're slowly getting through the early stages of Smokin' Joe's career because once he hits the big time there'll be no turning back. Just gotta semi-murder a cooooouple more battlers first...

DD - A couple more very big battlers right? I can't root for Joe though, just got an email from Wladimir Klitschko and he wants some peptides. An early dose to help him recover, how convenient! Off to Germany I go...

WC - Oh well enjoy the trip, Doc. Catch a few Bundesliga games while you're there, I'm pretty sure you'll find a market with anyone not named Bayern Munich. Just keep those pesky peppies outta NZ coz we don't go for that round here, matey. Seasons greetings and all that.

DD - I could start my own 'Dopers League' couldn't I? Over and out.