Commentary

Do Agassi's mistakes tarnish legacy?

Updated: October 29, 2009, 2:10 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

We all knew Andre Agassi was floundering in 1997, when he did a free fall in the tennis rankings. We just weren't privy to quite how deep the abyss was. It took him 12 years to tell us.

The revelation that a young, rich, temporarily aimless athlete dabbled with a recreational drug will surprise few, although highly addictive crystal meth casts a scary shadow. What is far more likely to unnerve and dismay people who admire Agassi is the admission that he lied to tennis authorities to get himself off the hook when he tested positive.

Don't expect the cold-cases squad to pounce on this one. There won't be any legal or sporting repercussions. Although the World Anti-Doping Agency has asked the ATP for an explanation of the way Agassi's case was handled, the episode predates the very existence of WADA, which was established in 1999 following the Festina scandal at the Tour de France the previous year that blew the lid off systematic doping in that sport. Even if WADA had been around, the statute of limitations for doping violations under the agency's code is eight years.

Back in 1997 when the ATP was in charge of its own anti-doping program, drug testing in sports was a more ineffectual, self-policed system rife with loopholes and ripe for exploitation -- which is exactly what Agassi has admitted to doing. (It's a fair question now to ask whether there are cases involving other ATP players that never came to light.) The International Tennis Federation has administered the sport's anti-doping program in accordance with the WADA code since 2006.

Wednesday, ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti expressed "disappointment" with Agassi and added that his statements "provide confirmation that a tough anti-doping program is needed." ITF science and technical manager Stuart Miller added that reopening the old proceedings "would be a non-starter,'' due to elapsed time, lack of jurisdiction and the fact that Agassi is retired.

Tennis has made progress since Agassi's midcareer crisis, increasing the number of tests on top players and the frequency of out-of-competition tests this season, although the ITF has not made numbers available. There's room for improvement, including more testing for EPO and other blood boosters that could aid in recovery between matches over a long, grueling season. But the WADA code, which the ITF signed in 2004, does make it less likely that an Agassi-like scenario would reoccur.

We can choose to believe or dismiss Richard Gasquet's contention that he tested positive for cocaine because of the contaminated lips of a woman he smooched in a Miami nightclub earlier this year. But the troubled young French star at least had to present his lurid evidence in a formal setting instead of simply scrawling his thoughts on a legal pad. He was suspended, albeit briefly, and the term of his suspension could still be extended in a pending ITF and WADA appeal. Finally, Gasquet suffered the humiliation of having his case made public, which may be the biggest deterrent to so-called casual drug use.

The handling of recreational drugs under the WADA code has long been a work in progress. There's a school of thought that such matters would be best dealt with through mandatory (and confidential) rehab. But stimulants like cocaine and meth pose a dilemma for anti-doping authorities as they can double as performance enhancers. If what Agassi wrote accurately describes the way he used crystal meth, it was definitely not for that purpose.

Act II of Agassi's career stands almost alone in tennis, both competitively and personally. He played ardently at the highest level into his mid-30s and was and is one of the sport's most eloquent spokesmen. His academy for underprivileged children in Las Vegas sets a gold standard for philanthropic good works that matches his career Golden Slam -- all four majors plus the Olympic title.

There's apt to be widespread forgiveness of his transgression, and many would argue he deserves that. But wouldn't Agassi's comeback have been just as stirring if he'd taken the other fork in the road, taken his lumps and accepted a three-month suspension back in those dark days?

Those of his peers willing to comment have voiced support. "This will not diminish the way I regard Andre, which is as a person with the highest possible character,'' said Justin Gimelstob, now a Tennis Channel analyst. "It's refreshing to finally see an athlete write a memoir that's actually revealing. This is completely in line with who Andre is. When he does something, he does it all the way.

"The best thing about Andre is his connection with his vulnerability and his flaws and his constant desire to change and develop and evolve and grow. He'll have no problem looking a kid in the eye and saying 'I've made mistakes.'"

[+] EnlargeAndre Agassi
Al Bello /Allsport Andre Agassi's tawdry episodes in 1997 might have cast some shadows, but they only make the latter part of his career that much more impressive.

Jim Courier, in an e-mail response, wrote "It takes a lot of courage to lay it all out there and examine oneself the way he does in the book.'' Andy Roddick expressed himself in a Twitter post that read, "Andre is and always will be my idol. I will judge him on how he's treated me, and how he has changed the world for the better.''

Agassi's former coaches Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill -- both ESPN analysts -- declined comment, saying they thought it was more appropriate that Agassi speak for himself. Agassi's dear friend and longtime trainer Gil Reyes said he would also refrain from any public remarks until after Agassi has had a chance to answer questions.

Commentator and former pro Mary Carillo hasn't read the book yet, but said she doesn't think anything in it would change her esteem for Agassi's career "or him as a person.''

"It's not a surprise when you look back on his results in 1997, now that we know the environment he put himself in,'' Carillo said. "It would be a much bigger story in this day and age if he had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.''

When the dust settles, it's possible that this tawdry episode will only make Agassi's renaissance look even more impressive in retrospect. But it also should remain a cautionary tale, just one of several included in Agassi's 400-page memoir. The passages describing his pressure-cooker relationship with his father may disturb many readers more than any drug use. We need to remind ourselves periodically that talented children who have been enlisted in the service of someone else's dream -- even if they're amassing fantastic rewards in the process -- may be less fulfilled than they appear.

Great athletes also tend to be great risk-takers, which helps them perform remarkable feats but also can lead them into wildly reckless mistakes. Sports superstars flounder, panic and grasp for alibis just like the rest of us. Agassi has spent years converting the negative energy in his life into something constructive. On balance, the fact that he's owned up to actions he could have left forever buried is better late than never.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

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Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.