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Welcome to the Golden Age of PED Test Honesty

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Getty Images

We are living in the golden age of honest PED test statements.

I know, I know: “honest” and “PED” are not words that often appear together, at least not for reasons that are any good. But hear me out. Since Major League Baseball instituted a new, significantly more rigorous drug policy in 2005, players at all levels have been suspended for using banned substances. Many have been high-profile stars, whose suspensions prompted Official Statements, both by them and by their teams, before the stars slipped into the shadows to serve their time.

For years, these statements were formal, typically very short, and not very detailed (if at all) about what exactly led to a suspension. They went approximately like this:

  1. I apologize for my actions.
  2. I regret the hurt they have caused my team, my teammates, and the fans.
  3. I accept my punishment, and I will do better in the future.

Essentially, players released something that went a notch or two past “mistakes were made” on the Sorry-O-Meter. Teams usually followed in kind, noting they were disappointed and little else.

Consider the rash of suspensions that came out of the 2013 Biogenesis investigation. Jhonny Peralta accepted his suspension in very general terms. (“I made a terrible mistake.”) Ryan Braun, after a fiery ’12 press conference in which he denied everything, ultimately released a lengthy but vague statement of contrition. Alex Rodriguez, the suspended-est of them all, stuck to denial for nearly two years before finally admitting to buying and using PEDs only while under oath in a closed-door session with the DEA. Each statement, like countless others that came before them, gives off a distinct written-by-committee vibe. It offers little information beyond the likelihood that players employ some extremely expensive PR people.

Compare this decade or so of pale, guilty-of-something-but-who-can-say-what admissions to some of the PED suspension statements we’ve seen this year. On Wednesday, Marlon Byrd was suspended 162 games for a second violation of MLB’s drug policy; given that the Indians outfielder is 38 years old, this almost certainly marks the end of his career.

As news broke, Byrd released a surprisingly frank statement detailing how it came about:

This is, obviously, Byrd’s account of the proceedings, so grain of salt, etc. But the statement contains the name of the drug, the description of Byrd’s supplement routine, and his own explanation of how he came to take the banned substance, which is a hell of a lot more than a comment on a similar suspension would have included a few years ago.

Or look at Dee Gordon’s 80-game suspension from April, news of which prompted a cutting response from Marlins president David Samson:

It is a brutal thing to read — “[W]e love Dee Gordon, but we do not like what he did” — and it comes off, well, like a human being wrote it. A real one, who was really upset, and who wasn’t trying to cloak that in legalese.

This phenomenon is not solely limited to baseball. When Maria Sharapova announced in March that she had tested positive for a banned substance, for which she was provisionally suspended days later, she held a press conference in which she named the banned drug and detailed when — and under what circumstances — she began to take it. (Sharapova has not yet received a final verdict on her provisional suspension, which forced her to miss the French Open; the International Tennis Federation is likely to hand down a ruling in the coming days.)

So what’s driving the trend toward transparency? It might be that as PED busts of prominent athletes become increasingly common — bordering, even, on routine — teams, coaches, and players are growing tired of the same old PR-friendly lines. Players have returned from their suspensions to rejuvenate their careers; busted athletes have gone on to rebuild the trust of their teams and the fans. A PED suspension no longer seems like a death sentence for a career; why not be a little more honest, a little less grave?

A more cynical take might contend that athletes know being (or seeming) a little more open could score them points with an angry public. Sharapova went so far as to joke about the state of the carpet at her press conference (“If I was ever going to announce my retirement, it would probably not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet”) and blamed the mild, relatable laziness of not checking her email for failing to be up to date with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s forbidden-substance list — light remarks for which she was later praised in the press. Isn’t seeming honest and forthright better than seeming ashamed? Don’t crisis managers on TV always say to get ahead of the issue?

Does knowing what, specifically, caused an athlete to fail a drug test make that result any more acceptable? Probably not. But, like your parents always said, it’s nice to hear people finally apologizing like they mean it.