U.S. sports could benefit from WADA system

Updated: July 31, 2006, 7:01 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Let's put the Floyd Landis/Justin Gatlin cases in terms the average U.S. sports fan even marginally relates to, since God knows this whole cycling/track thing isn't working.

Barry Bonds hits one of his four home runs for the San Francisco Giants in the 2002 World Series against Anaheim, OK? It's a bomb way out to right field, just a complete explosion. Bonds rounds the bases and takes his bow. An hour or so later, the game ends. And before you can say "otherworldly performance," a guy in a white lab coat approaches Bonds and intones, "This way, please."

Bonds thus has to produce a urine specimen right then, on the spot, with the testing results to be determined and announced as soon as they're available. And if the results come back hot for a substance from the Please Don't Inject, Rub or Swallow List, Bonds immediately is thrown into the court of public opinion, named as an accused cheat while waiting for the backup urine sample to either refute or (almost always) affirm the original finding.

In other words, you get your controversy in something close to real time, which is what Landis is experiencing in his current Tour de Nightmare. This is the WADA way, the World Anti-Doping Agency system -- about as close to transparency as any drug testing system gets. It's intrusive and inconvenient; it doesn't always work; and it most certainly is not without its critics and its problems.

Yet it's the way to go. Right here at home, too.

Me? I'd rather see Bonds tested in real time than suspected for years on end. I'd rather the Mark McGwire debate hinge on some actual test result than on a Bunyanesque heaping of innuendo, congressional keep-away and inexhaustible Canseco-isms. Baseball's Hall of Fame voters, in particular, are about to enter one of the most shift-in-your-seat uncomfortable periods they've ever encountered, with several substance-related controversies looming and nothing definitive about any of them.

WADA's process doesn't guarantee a happy ending, of course, but it comes closer than any of the systems currently negotiated among the major U.S. pro sports leagues. It's the closest thing to having transparency in the process, even if that's still too opaque to be truly great.

And it really does matter. It matters even if the Landis debate grows tiresome overnight or if Gatlin's coach comes up with some intelligence-straining conspiracy theory involving evil massage therapists and tainted cream.

It matters because, in the U.S., sports aren't as fun to follow if you don't even have the option to take them seriously. And it is increasingly difficult to take seriously any sport that professes to care whether its players cheat against each other yet operates a testing system that is anything less than the strongest it can offer. Will a WADA-like approach cure cheating? Oh, not at all. I'll take that a step further: Any truly committed cheat -- especially if he or she has the support of some of the ultrabright lab rats who have created "test-proof" designer drugs over the years -- can find a way to beat the system, at least temporarily. Even under the best circumstances, sports officials are generally one step behind wherever the cutting edge happens to be in performance enhancement.

But the threat of a public outing, quickly and with fanfare, could be a powerful deterrent to all but the most ardent cheaters, and that's one break a sports fan could use. I'm not asking for an end to controversy, but is there any way we could at least attempt to tone it down for future generations?

What is sport, after all, without a level playing field? (Well, a human endeavor, for starters, but let's go for that level field all the same.) Don't raise the issue of cheating unless you're serious about fixing it. Otherwise, let 'em all juice and blood dope to their heart's content, and we stiffs in the stands will be none the wiser until somebody's head explodes in the middle of a game.

It's far too easy to gain distance from the Landis/Gatlin cases. Landis is in cycling, Gatlin in track. Other than once every few years, the average American sports fan is documented as fully prepared to heave a massive "Who cares?" in the general direction of both sports.

That's too bad because their testing systems are instructive, perhaps even illuminating. For all its occasional bloodthirsty appearance, its unapologetic naming of names and its inevitable flaws, the WADA system is the best drug-fighting attempt in sports. If the major U.S. sports leagues really want to get on board, they haven't far to look for the model.

Mark Kreidler of The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.