The baseball writers have spoken and the collective message to reputed steroid users is this: The Hall of Fame isn’t in your future. That means no to Barry Bonds, MLB’s all time home runs leader. No to Roger Clemens, arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation. No to Mark McGwire, who snapped Roger Maris’s longstanding single season home run record. No to Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero and Jose Canseco.
The baseball writers have drawn a clear line in the sand. So why won’t boxing writers do the same?
The annual Hall of Fame ballot hits writers' mailboxes this month (disclaimer: I am a voter) and there is a high-profile, steroid-connected name on the ballot: Fernando Vargas, the hard-hitting former junior middleweight champion who tested positive for anabolic steroids in 2002. To be fair, Vargas’s career may not be Hall of Fame-worthy. He won his first world title at 20 and owns wins over Winky Wright and Ike Quartey. But he lost showdowns with Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya and the prime of his career was short. Yet few -- if any -- voters are expected to exclude him solely based on the positive test.
It’s puzzling, really. If any sport needs to punish steroid users it’s boxing, where the object is literally to batter the man in front of you. Fighters die (Duk-Koo Kim, Leavander Johnson), are seriously injured (Magomed Abdusalamov) and suffer debilitating long term effects (Muhammad Ali, Freddie Roach) at an alarming rate. Far too often a fighter gets popped for PED’s -- just last week it was revealed that heavyweight contender Luis Ortiz tested positive for an elevated level of nandrolone after his first round knockout win over Lateef Kayode -- and the reaction is a resounding indifference.
No one disputes PED’s are a problem in boxing. “You do steroids, you are doing something illegal and you should be banned for life,” says De La Hoya. “You are not hitting a baseball. You are hitting someone in the head. You can really get hurt.” Parsing the responsibility for change though is like watching a game of hot potato. Promoters pass the responsibility off on the commission. “The Nevada commission does a great job,” says De La Hoya. “They can do more.” Nevada, of course, is willing to implement enhanced testing, as long as someone else is footing the bill.
There is little Hall voters can do to force real change, of course. What they can do is make it clear that there will be no place among boxing’s recognized elite for offenders. It won’t be easy. It means saying no to Shane Mosley, who admitted to using BALCO-provided steroids in 2003. That means no to James Toney, who tested positive multiple times. That means no to Evander Holyfield, or “Evan Fields” as the Alabama pharmacy that allegedly supplied Holyfield with HGH had him in its books. Some cases can be debated -- De La Hoya argues that diuretics, which are on the banned list, should not be classified as performance enhancers because they are used for weight loss -- but most cases should be open and shut.
The steroid problem will eventually reach a tipping point. "Something is definitely wrong with our system," says De La Hoya. There will be a fighter in a high-profile event killed or badly hurt in the ring, and the fighter who inflicted the damage will test positive for something. When that happens, look out. Mainstream media will condemn boxing as barbaric, commissions and promoters will be attacked, Congressmen will call for hearings to determine whether the sports should be outlawed. It’s not a question of if, but when.
The sport will be forced to respond, to begin to implement the changes we should be seeing today. But by then it will be too late. A life will be lost or completely ruined. Hall voters have a chance to move the needle now, when it matters most.
They can do what the fighters should have: Just say no.