O’Neil: When it comes to getting caught, Robinson Cano is just like everyone else

May 16, 2018, 12:30 PM | Updated: 12:30 pm
Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariners, Mariners...
Robinson Cano was suspended 80 games after testing positive for a banned substance. (AP)

Professional athletes must be some of the unluckiest people in the world.

It’s the only way to explain the fact that pretty much every performance-enhancing drug violation is totally inadvertent, the athletic equivalent of being slipped a Mickey.

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

This is not an attempt to single out Robinson Cano individually, but to put his explanation regarding the drug violation in context: It’s what everyone says.

They say this for any number of reasons whether it’s the personal shame they feel for having taken something that was forbidden or the public scrutiny they’re seeking to minimize or good old-fashioned denial over the long-term consequences of having their achievements questioned.

If the past 10 years have taught us anything about the people who use banned substances in sports it’s that they will deny, deny, deny when caught and then sometimes sue.

Ryan Braun took to the courts to fight his suspension. Rafael Palmeiro pounded his fist while asserting his indignance in front of Congress.

Alex Rodriguez went from
a) In 2007, denying he ever used PED’s in an interview with “60 Minutes” to
b) In 2009, admitting he used PED’s but only while playing for the Rangers from 2001 to 2003, asserting he’d been clean since becoming a Yankee, to
c) Being suspended in 2013 for what amounted to a full season for his involvement with the Biogenesis lab.

As a rule I don’t believe an athlete’s explanation for a PED violation. I recognize that this is cynical and it comes at a cost: I assume the worst of those players who did make an entirely innocent mistake. This runs contrary to the presumption of innocence that’s a bedrock value, but that presumption of innocence is a legal standard used in the courts and not a point of view we’re mandated to have. If nothing else Lance Armstrong’s history stands as evidence of the dangers of taking an athlete’s word for integrity.

I’m aware of exactly one time in which an athlete tested positive and immediately said, “Yeah, you got me.” That’s not to say it hasn’t happened more often, but I can remember only one. It was Chris Leben, a mixed-martial artist, who tested positive for stanzolol – often referred to as Winstrol – and said afterward he had no idea the drug would stay in his system as long as it did.

I don’t profess to be any sort of expert on the science of performance-enhancing drugs or the particulars of the testing mechanisms or the procedure for punishing someone who violates them. What I do know is that performance-enhancing drugs work. They work really, really well, which in the big picture is why they’re banned. It’s also why there’s a huge incentive for an athlete to take these substances even if they are prohibited. In fact, that prohibition actually heightens the incentive to cheat because of the benefit it would confer.

To think that no one would cheat because it’s forbidden and an affront to the ethic of fair play is to believe that professional athletes – as a group of people – are so morally sound and principled as to border on being incorruptible. I do not believe that professional athletes – as a group – are incorruptible.

I don’t think professional athletes are like most groups in our country. You’ve got some sticklers for the rules, some tattle tales and some total louts. In any group of a 100 people you’re going to have a few people who believe that if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying whether that comes to the taxes or their spouses. Yet the number of athletes who fess up to consciously choosing to take a chemical short-cut to provide an obvious benefit remains unbelievably low, and by that I mean that I don’t believe it.

The athlete’s explanation usually comes in one of two flavors:
1) The banned substance that was included in a legal supplement the player was taking, without knowledge of the banned substance;
2) The substance was something that was banned, but is not – itself – a performance-enhancing drug. Like when Manny Ramirez tested positive for a female fertility drug.

That’s the route Cano opted for, pointing to a drug that is a diuretic that was reportedly used to treat high blood pressure. And maybe that’s true.

Or maybe, as T.J. Quinn of ESPN pointed out on Tuesday on “Bob, Groz and Tom,” the presence of the diuretic itself isn’t grounds for a suspension. The investigator had to find something else beyond the presence of that specific drug to serve as grounds for a suspension.

I don’t know if Cano is guilty of knowingly taking a banned substance. I do know that his explanation – that he took the drug under a doctor’s guidance for something else – falls in line with what athletes always tend to say after they get caught, and while I don’t think any less of Cano as a player for what he took, I also don’t believe his explanation.

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O’Neil: When it comes to getting caught, Robinson Cano is just like everyone else