In this age of BALCO, shamed former Olympians and juiced-up home run hitters, a failed drug test essentially serves as a scarlet letter for professional athletes. The label of cheater usually accompanies the offense, along with punishments put in place to deter potential violators from even considering such a sinister path.
MLS got its chance to prove it this week, slapping 10-match bans on New York Red Bulls starters Jon Conway and Jeff Parke for being the first players in league history to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Conway and Parke also were fined 10 percent of their salaries after testing positive for androstatriendione (ATD), a performance-enhancing substance that can produce the steroid boldenone when ingested. The substance was included in a nutritional supplement that was purchased over the counter. The punishment was swift and record-setting for two players whose biggest crime was, according to MLS and the Red Bulls, simply not being more careful about what supplements they bought at the local vitamin store.
"MLS has one of the strictest drug policies in professional sports and holds its athletes both responsible and accountable for what they put into their bodies," MLS commissioner Don Garber said in the league announcement of the suspensions. "This is an important statement as to the high standards to which we hold our players."
Conway and Parke, who have played a combined 14 seasons in MLS, were not millionaire athletes working with personal trainers and private laboratories. They were two MLS veterans -- making a combined $168,500 in 2008 -- looking for legal supplements to help with the grind of the long season. Their costly mistake was buying and ingesting a store-bought supplement without thoroughly researching the potential risks with the team's training staff or through services offered by MLS.
So what exactly did Conway and Parke take? Neither the Red Bulls or MLS will identify the specific supplement because of legal issues (both Parke and Conway have failed to address their suspensions publicly). However, Red Bulls head trainer Rick Guter placed at least part of the blame on chain store nutritional supplements that can, at times, contain substances that are not identified on the packaging.
"The problem is if you walk into any GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, any of those national things, if you buy anything off the shelf, there's a 60 percent chance [the product is tainted]," Guter said. "There have been some studies that showed that 70 percent of the products are tainted in some of these places.
"It's not so much what's on the label but what can be in there in addition to what's on the label," Guter said. "Unless these laboratories are certified, that's really the only ones that can guarantee what you're getting."
What Conway and Parke got when they went looking for supplements to help their recovery process was a little more than they bargained for. Androstatriendione is a metabolite of the steroid boldenone, a steroid normally used by horses, but something that's included in the banned list of every top pro sports league in the United States. Ingesting ATD can lead to the body's producing testosterone in the form of boldenone.
Boldenone increases nitrogen retention and protein synthesis, increases appetite and stimulates the release of erythropoietin in the kidneys. The drug commonly is used in doping within bodybuilding and can help facilitate an increase in strength and size.
"We're actually one of the few leagues that tests for it," Guter said of androstatriendione. "The league is actually going above and beyond what other leagues in this country do."
So how would steroids help soccer players? The common misconception about steroids is that they are used solely to pack on muscle to body builders and football players, but the rash of track and field suspensions of high-profile steroid users such as Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery shows that steroids also can benefit athletes by helping them recover from competitions and training more quickly.
The story the Red Bulls and MLS are telling is that Conway and Parke were victims of over-the-counter supplements that were tainted with a banned substance.
"We are in a professional sport which requires day-to-day recovery, and one of the hardest things to do is the trauma these guys go through on a daily basis," Guter said. "They were looking to help with that whole recovery process, trying to just do their best to be as good today as they were yesterday."
Should we believe this story, particularly in light of the numerous times professional athletes have been found guilty of performance-enhancing drug abuse after initially denying the use? The easy and cynical answer is no, but a closer look at the reality of MLS makes it seem unlikely that a player would take the risk for what are comparatively modest rewards.
Consider the two players in question. Conway was enjoying his first season as an unquestioned MLS starter and is in the first year of a four-year contract paying him more than $110,000 a season. Would he risk a contract he spent seven years working toward, a contract that is not guaranteed, to take a chance with steroids?
Parke's future is even cloudier. A fan favorite for his toughness and work ethic, Parke rose from being the very last pick in the 2004 MLS draft to becoming a steady starter for the better part of five MLS seasons. This year, he was making less than $60,000 a year in the final year of his original contract. This offseason promised to be his chance for a new contract and six-figure payday. However, Parke will face an uncertain future as the Red Bulls decide whether to bring him back on a new contract in 2009, when he will wind up serving a six- to eight-game suspension.
Although the public might be slow to believe Parke's and Conway's story of an honest mistake, their teammates and coach sound convinced that the two veteran leaders were not intentionally trying to cheat.
"I think they probably let themselves down because, as far as I know, both Jeff and Jon are both very genuine individuals," Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio said. "They are hardworking human beings that unknowingly bought a supplement that, in the end, caused them a lot of problems."
"We were very surprised that Jeff and Jon tested positive," Red Bulls captain Juan Pablo Angel said. "As a team, we want to first of all offer them our support. We're all behind them. I'm sure we're going to miss them because they're very important members of our team and very important characters in the dressing room.
"They accept that they made a mistake, and they knew they got it wrong."
If MLS was hoping to send a strong message with these suspensions, it certainly has done that. In a league in which big contracts are rare, and guaranteed contracts even scarcer, the suspensions, fines and uncertain future Conway and Parke face should be enough to dissuade others from similar mistakes.
"We've got to respect and understand the drug policies of MLS," Angel said. "I think it's a wake-up call for all of us to be more careful of what we put in our bodies."
Are these suspensions an isolated incident, or are they the beginning of a trend as the league grows and players fight for an edge? MLS fans shouldn't worry about an epidemic. Current players almost certainly will be far more diligent about making sure any supplements they take are clean, especially if Conway and Parke struggle to find places to play in 2009.
As to the question of whether there are MLS players who might consider intentionally taking performance-enhancing drugs, that is unlikely. The combination of MLS' zero-tolerance policy and its relatively low salaries makes the reward not worth the risk in a league in which five-figure salaries are the norm. In baseball or the NFL, the reward of another huge seven-figure contract is always looming for the athlete considering performance-enhancing drugs. For professional soccer players in MLS, the possibility of a lengthy suspension or, worse yet, the end of a career, is hardly worth the modest salary gains that might come from one good season.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.