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O’Neil: Robinson Cano’s suspension is not a sign of moral failing

Robinson Cano won't be playing for the Mariners until mid-August due to a suspension. (AP)

That’s OK. He’s hurt anyway.

That was my first reaction to the news that Robinson Cano was going to be suspended after testing positive for a banned substance.

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I’m not necessarily proud of the fact that my first concern was whether he could serve the suspension while he’s injured nor am I saying that it’s the proper reaction. I’m just being honest and transparent about my distinct lack of outrage when it comes to professional athletes using performance-enhancing drugs.

If you’re looking for someone who feels like Cano betrayed anyone other than himself, you should find another column to read – and no doubt there will be plenty of people wringing hands over their tremendous disappointment in Cano, the impact to Cano’s legacy and the example he’s set.

Sorry, but that’s not how I feel.

I don’t see Cano any differently in the wake of the 80-game suspension, and that’s certainly not because I buy his explanation regarding the positive test. I don’t. But I also don’t think the use of banned substances is some huge moral failing among professional athletes.

Let me be clear: I don’t think it’s OK to use substances that are prohibited. It’s clearly cheating and it undermines the ethic of fair competition that is really the baseline parameters for any good sport. It also has harmful long-term consequences relating to others: It also creates a pressure on other athletes they’re competing against to pharmaceutically enhance their performance to keep pace, but mostly, I think it’s bad because it provides an example for teenagers – people who aren’t professionals – that it’s a route to success.

But as far as transgressions go, I consider PED violations to be more misdemeanors than felonies. Certainly worse than something petty like jaywalking, but more like a criminal-traffic violation for speeding than a crime against another person.

I think PED use is a rational decision that comes from the desire to improve performance, which when you get down to it, is the engine that carries an athlete to the ranks of professionals to begin with.

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Performance-enhancing drugs tend to get characterized as the forbidden fruit of professional sports, and that’s true in some respects. It’s no mystery what substances are banned, and when an athlete puts one of those substances in his or her body it is crossing a line. But that athlete is also putting plenty of other things into their body with the aim of improving performance. We’re talking about a difference in degree, not one of underlying motivation. So when a professional athlete crosses that line and takes a banned substance in hopes of wringing more production out of the body that is now an actual business, well, to use an expression from the comic Chris Rock, I’m not saying anyone should ever use a performance-enhancing drug that is banned, but I understand.

Look at Cano’s case specifically, and while I know he denies having taken a performance-enhancing drug, let’s put that aside and say for argument’s sake that the positive test result did accurately flag the use of one. Why might Cano have done that?

We’ve all talked about Cano needing to have better range at second base this year and the possibility that he was hampered by a hamstring injury last year. He’s getting older, reaching the halfway point of an enormous contract, and there’s a pressure for him to maintain his All-Star level of play. If that – combined with his professional competitiveness – led him to take drugs that improved his performance, well, that seems like a fairly rational decision. In fact, I can see how he made that decision without describing him as some sort of unholy baseball gremlin who has defiled the sport that he has played so well and has provided him with so much.

Now, just because it’s rational doesn’t make it right. Going 20 mph over the speed limit because you’re late is a rational response to being behind schedule. It’s also illegal and dangerous and shouldn’t be done. But we wouldn’t take someone who receives a criminal traffic violation for speeding and paint them as some sociopath who has defiled the very act of driving a car.

Should Cano have taken a banned substance? Absolutely not. It’s cheating to take a substance that is banned under the rules of the sport. But I think it’s cheating in the same way as corking a bat or scuffing a ball or throwing a spitball, and I roll my eyes when people get all high and mighty about cheating the game.

I believe Robinson Cano made a mistake, one that is going to cost him in the eyes of people around the game, but it’s not going to change the way I look at him. Besides, he gets to serve the suspension while he’s on the disabled list.

More from 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny O’Neil