How sad for USA Track & Field. They’ve clearly run out of credible coaches.
Of all the talented trainers in the United States, USATF, which governs track and field in this country, had to resort to naming Dennis Mitchell to lead its sprint teams at the I.A.A.F. World Relays in the Bahamas last week. That’s the same Dennis Mitchell who tested positive for banned testosterone in 1998, and then defended himself by saying that failed doping test was a result oftoo much beer and too much sex with his fiancée.
Mitchell was innocent, he had shouted for all to hear, insisting that his ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone — a measure used by drug testers to monitor testosterone levels in the body — was natural, even though it was nearly two times the current allowed limit. A USATF panel believed his story, but international officials did not, and Mitchell served a two-year ban.
“I feel terribly wronged,” he told The New York Times during the ban. “I feel like this sport owed me more than this.”
A decade later, the public learned that Mitchell, a four-time national champion in the 100 meters and an Olympic gold medalist, was not just a stellar performer on the track. He also had been a good actor.
Mitchell testified in 2008 in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative steroids case that his coach, Trevor Graham, had set him up with banned drugs and that Graham had injected him with human growth hormone. Under oath, Mitchell said that when he was an adviser to Marion Jones in 1997, they had sought Graham’s counsel about performance-enhancing-drug use.
Given that background, it seems ridiculous that United States track officials would want him anywhere near their delegation, or that any athletes would want Mitchell to coach them, for fear that his doping background might cast a shadow on them. But this is track and field, a sport that has repeatedly failed Public Relations 101, so nothing seems to be too ridiculous to be true.
And, unfortunately, this is where we are in sports. Scandals have uncovered pervasive doping in everything from baseball to cycling, outing drug users and revealing the seamy, performance-enhanced side of elite sports. Now the problem is, what should we do with those athletes who were involved in the past era of doping who now want back into their sport?
Here’s what we shouldn’t do: name someone like Dennis Mitchell to represent the United States when he has never publicly atoned for his doping or even attempted to prove to the fans that he has been reformed. The few loyal fans left deserve at least that much.
Other sports also have some explaining to do, too, especially after assuming the public has forgotten — or simply doesn’t care — about the drug use that has wrecked the purity of their games.
Look in the dugout at Los Angeles Dodgers games, and you might see the hitting coach Mark McGwire, a slugger who once used steroids to perform his great feats. Stop by the San Francisco Giants’ spring training camp for a glimpse of Barry Bonds, the player convicted of obstructing a grand jury in a case centered on doping, who still will not admit that he doped to succeed. Or take a visit to the Chicago Cubs’ Class AAA Iowa affiliate, where Manny Ramirez, twice suspended for drug use, has just been hired as a player/coach.
Should there be a set route to redemption for each of those players now branded as dopers? If there is one, it should start with them speaking loudly and publicly about the dangers of doping, about how those mistakes can drag down a whole sport. An apology would help, too.
Max Siegel, the chief executive of USA Track & Field and the person who approves all coaching decisions, would not make himself available to discuss how coaches are chosen. But Jill Geer, a spokeswoman for the organization, said any coach in good standing with the United States Anti-Doping Agency was eligible “for the privileges of the sport.”
Geer got it right. Being named to coach a United States team is a privilege, not a right. That’s what upset so many people in the sport about Mitchell’s return.
Lauren Fleshman, a two-time national champion in the 5,000 meters, wroteon her blog that naming Mitchell as coach would be “like putting someone who has formerly served time for fraud in charge of your bank,” arguing that “he casts a shadow on USATF as a whole.”
“I wish him a fantastic life, but I don’t want him or his wife involved in my sport in any position of influence or leadership,” she added, referring to Mitchell’s wife, Damu Cherry-Mitchell, a coach who also served a two-year doping ban in 2003.
Mitchell, who served his punishment, certainly has a right to work. He also has every right to collect payments from USA Track & Field for coaching athletes who receive stipends from USATF and choose to employ him.
But to lead the United States team at an international meet, as if the last 16 years never happened?
Maybe someday. But not yet. Redemption is too important to just happen overnight.