The received wisdom in tennis has always been that drugs are a non-issue. There is, the argument goes, no drug that can supply the particular mix of talents and skills that are needed to win you tennis matches. In her 1985 book, Passing Shots on Tour, Pam Shriver noted another reason for the women, courtesy of former player JoAnne Russell: they're too cheap to buy their own drugs.
The situation with respect to recreational drugs has been a little less shrouded in mystery. The 1970s top ten player and 1977 Australian Open winner Vitas Gerulaitis, for example, admitted to cocaine use, and in his 1995 autobiography, I Never Played the Game, US veteran sports commentator Howard Cosell speculated on the unlikelihood that at least some of tennis's dozens of young, rich, successful people who traveled in jet-setting circles hadn't at least dabbled in such things. Other revelations have surfaced from time to time, most notoriously Jennifer Capriati's 1993 marijuana drug bust. Now, Andre Agassi has admitted to using crystal meth in 1997, the year his ranking plunged to a low of 141.
As advertisements for drug use go, this is a pretty good one for the ill-effects: one of the most talented players in the history of the game couldn't even keep himself in the top 100 while using.
Still, Agassi's admission - and still more, the ATP's acceptance of the lies he told to avoid exposure and a three-month suspension - has set off a predictable firestorm between the self-righteous and the forgiving. McEnroe's admission in his 2004 autobiography that he had (unknowingly, he said) taken steroids during his playing career, caused much less outcry.
It has long been my belief that players should not be tested, certainly not disqualified, for recreational drug use. Agassi's case seems to suggest otherwise, as the ATP's notification of his failed test frightened him into rehabilitating himself, his game, and his life, turning him from an underachiever to a tennis great. But if the tours are going to behave as rescuers in this way they should also direct their energies to finding ways to lower the injury rate, a much more visibly widespread and career-damaging problem.
In any event, it was always clear that in today's corporate sports exposing drug use on the part of tennis's top stars would benefit no one. Neither tours nor tournament promoters nor sponsors can tolerate scandal concerning their top box office draws. Even competitors do not benefit as much as you might think if a top star is taken out. Yes, their opportunities to rise in the rankings or win a particular tournament may be enhanced. But the star players like Agassi and McEnroe pull in the money and fans that enable everyone else to make a living.
It certainly seems as though today things would be handled differently. Take, for example, the case of the young, up-and-coming Belgian player Yanina Wickmayer, a semifinalist at the recent US Open, who has just been suspended for a year, potentially permanently wrecking her career, for failing to notify the drug testing authorities of her daily whereabouts (reportedly her appeal will rest on being unable to log onto the WADA Web site for two weeks). The whereabouts rule was the subject of much criticism by the players when it was introduced at the beginning of the year. They thought of the difficulties of leaving town hastily after losses; they thought of the logistical problems of sudden schedule changes. No one mentioned Internet failures, but it's an oh-so-credible explanation.
A lot of things have changed since 1997 to satisfy critics. The tours are no longer responsible for their own drug testing, removing both the obvious conflict of interest (good) and the best source of help for the players (bad). The retired Spanish player Sergi Bruguera (Spanish), who lost to Agassi in the 1996 Olympic final in Atlanta, is complaining that Agassi should now be relieved of his gold medal. His logic is unclear given the reported dates, but it's easy to understand the betrayal a player would feel on learning that another got special protection. WADA has said both that it would like the case investigated and that now, past the eight years' statute of limitations, there's nothing that can be done to punish Agassi.
But the people who should be most upset are those innocent athletes who are wrongfully accused. WADA's preferred zero-tolerance view seems to be that contrary to the presumption of innocence in a democratic society there is no such thing as an innocent explanation. Even so, there have certainly been cases of contaminated supplements and medically necessary ingestion, and confusion over which substances should be on the banned list (PDF).
Agassi's telling the truth about himself was certainly not a bad thing for him or his publishers; it is not even a bad thing for the game, since rational policy-making depends on the availability of factual evidence. But it will still make it harder for any athlete who is actually innocent to be believed, no matter what the exculpating evidence. As unintended consequences go, that's a real shame.