Sunday 19 October ~
It’s not often that a press release from Major League Soccer causes you to swear out loud and drop your jaw. But Thursday’s announcement that the league had suspended two players from the New York Red Bulls for ten games and fined them ten per cent of their annual wage for “violating the MLS Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Policy” was one such occasion. Surely not here in young and innocent MLS, where half the players are nice, well-spoken white college graduates. Including the two suspended, goalkeeper Jon Conway and defender Jeff Parke.
A sceptic might say that New York’s inability to land a trophy in 13 years of existence would have been enough to drive its players to use any means available to enhance their performance. The team has one game to go, after yesterday's win over league-leading Columbus, to try to secure a play-off spot. The loss of their starting goalkeeper and a central defender is a huge blow to those chances, especially if you factor in the inevitable damage to the team’s morale, even if debutant Danny Cepero did manage to score the first ever MLS goal by a goalkeeper with an 81-yard free-kick.
But putting aside the team’s prospects, about which few MLS fans care because New York’s failure is the league’s longest running joke, the reaction of the players fails to set this case aside from any other sportsman caught taking illegal substances. The two admitted that they “ingested an over-the-counter supplement that unknowingly contained a banned substance”, according to their team’s official statement on the matter. The word “unknowingly” is the usual disclaimer here. No one’s ever a cheat. Athletes are almost always the victim of a trainer with a big medicine chest (like the entire Juventus squad in the mid-1990s, for example) or they just happened to wander into a pharmacist for a nutritional pick-me-up, never for once thinking that it might contain something like androstatriendione (ATD) and boldenone metabolites (the two substances that the New York players tested positive for). You can’t help but think of schoolboys caught shoplifting who proclaim they didn’t realise you were supposed to pay for stuff.
Because if the players are genuinely innocent, that just makes them at best extremely naive, at worst plain stupid. If the players took the substances conscious that they were illegal, because they thought they could get away with it and because they thought it would make them perform better, that makes them liars and cheats. As ever with such cases, the search for a winner is futile. But just for once, instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for himself because he was the one that got caught, it would be refreshing if a player would hold up his hand, confess that he knew what he was doing and express some measure of contrition. It just cannot be that every player in football’s history caught taking illegal substances has been the victim of an unscrupulous trainer or a failure to read the small print on the side of the box. Ian Plenderleith