Ken Early: The straight dope is fans don’t care
Despite Mamadou Sakho failing a drugs test the mood is one of apathy among supporters
Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho and Christian Benteke in the stands during their side’s 2-2 Premier League draw with Newcastle United. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
On Saturday morning, the news broke that Liverpool had suspended their central defender Mamadou Sakho after Uefa informed them that he was under investigation for a possible anti-doping rule violation.
Later that afternoon, Simon Mignolet flapped at a cross and let Newcastle’s Papiss Cisse head the ball into an empty net. Liverpool ended up drawing 2-2 after being 2-0 up at half-time.
Sakho’s failure to pass a drug test is a serious breach of his professional responsibilities. He had deprived the team of his services and created a scandal for his club just when everything had started to go rather well. If the adverse finding is confirmed and charges are brought against him, he’ll likely have to serve a long suspension. Mignolet, meanwhile, was only trying to do his job, to the best of his limited ability.
Guess which player the Liverpool fans were angrier with?
Maybe this is a case of fair-minded fans abiding by the principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. There are not yet any disciplinary proceedings against Sakho, who has until Tuesday to request analysis of the B-sample and give an explanation of why a banned substance appears to have turned up in his body. Maybe no charges will result and the whole affair will be forgotten about. Still, everyone knows how these situations usually play out.
The fact is that Sakho is much more popular at Anfield than Mignolet, who has cost Liverpool a lot of goals.
Anyone who follows football knows that fans are capable of rationalising almost any obnoxious behaviour from favoured teams or players. Players commit violence on the field, or crimes off it, and fans don’t care.
The idea that the cause of anti-doping could somehow transcend these tribal loyalties is naive. If someone’s favourite player is accused of doping, they’re more likely to reassess their attitude towards doping than towards the player. Diego Maradona was banned for abusing both performance-enhancing and recreational drugs without it ever affecting his popularity among supporters of Argentina or Napoli.
Uefa have not yet revealed which illegal substance was detected in Sakho’s test, so fans on the internet went with the French media report that it was a “fat-burner”. People debated whether a fat-burner could really be that big a deal. Taking a fat-burner hardly makes you Ben Johnson, does it?
Well, if you believe that doping in sport is a big deal then of course a fat-burner is a big deal. Getting rid of excess fat has an obvious performance-enhancing effect, and that’s before you consider the possibility that it could have been used as a masking agent for something even more advantageous.
The stories of baseball and American football over the last 20 years offer contrasting examples of what the public reaction might be if substantive revelations of widespread doping in European football were to emerge.
In the late 1990s, many baseball fans were annoyed when Mark McGwire, whom everyone knew was taking the not-yet-banned steroid androstenedione, smashed the single-season home run record that had previously been held by legends like Babe Ruth and Roger Maris.
More than any other sport, baseball is in love with its past – even the new stadiums are built to look like old ones – so the idea that guys like Ruth and Joe DiMaggio could be made to look puny by less-talented modern players who had the advantage of drugs was offensive – a kind of crime against America.
MLB eventually adopted tougher anti-doping protocols, but it is striking that the outcry that drove that process largely centred around the injustice that was being done to the historical records, rather than, for instance, the injustice done to all the contemporary baseball players who weren’t doping.
In American football there has been no comparable outcry. It’s commonly accepted that a lot of the players take PEDs. The NFL punishes a first doping offence by suspending the player for two, four or six games, depending on the severity of the offence. A second offence carries a 10-game ban, and anyone stupid enough to be caught a third time can be banned for two seasons.
The NFL’s four-game doping suspensions seem outrageously light to anyone who is more familiar with the two-year bans commonplace in athletics, but they accurately reflect the underlying apathy towards the issue from American football fans.
They just want to see the players on the field.
In an age when Americans are bombarded every day with advertising from drug companies, touting pharmaceutical solutions for everything from headache to hair loss to constipation to a generalised lack of well being, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that not many people can find the energy to get righteous about juicing in the NFL.
Which of the two American sports does football remind you of?