by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Now the hard question: Who’s responsible?

Some former players have finally admitted what has been whispered in sports circles for some time: Michigan State football players, at least in the 1987 season, maybe longer, routinely used steroids to bulk up.

This was such a common rumor that by this point the revelation fails to shock. The details, however — if true — are more gruesome than imagined. Players sticking needles into one another, switching urine to pass drug tests. Tony Mandarich, Mr. Bulky, playing doctor and pharmacist, handing out the stuff and advising teammates how to use and how to hide.

You ask yourself, “How could all that go on, and nobody in authority knew or did anything about it?”

Which brings us to our original question.

Who’s responsible? The coach. George Perles. Plain and simple. You can argue all you want about players being sneaky and coaches being tricked, and you might as well stop talking before you make a fool of yourself. One or two walk-ons, maybe. But coaches know what their star players are doing. Believe me. If there’s a coach out there who couldn’t look at Tony Mandarich between his freshman and junior years, couldn’t see the difference in weight, strength, speed, aggression, couldn’t notice the acne, the hair loss — I don’t mean to be crude, but by his senior year, up close, Mandarich looked like a freak — if a coach, with all that, still can’t figure out something funny’s going on, then he ought to step aside.

And maybe Perles should consider doing that. Coaches look the other way

That’s right. Step aside. At the very least, surrender the athletic director’s job he’s in line for. A coach who can’t police his own program can’t police the entire university’s.

Of course, it won’t happen. Steroids, sadly, have become too common a problem. And Perles, remember, is a man who managed to buck the wishes of his university president to get what he wanted. You think a newspaper can budge him?

But that doesn’t change the truth. That doesn’t alter what should have been on George Perles’ conscience for the last several years, and must stay there now and forever: That through the enormous pressure of his program and his lack of random testing, he may have let some 20-year-old do permanent damage to his body, perhaps giving him cancer one day. Perhaps, who knows, even worse.

Perles did not return my phone call Wednesday. But sooner or later, he will make a statement. Let me guess. He’s shocked. He’s horrified. He’s going to clean up the program, whatever it takes, and he has never encouraged his players to use steroids.

No. Neither have any of the other coaches whose players swallowed muscle pills. You’ve heard of benign neglect? I call this malignant neglect. It goes like this: “Men, I don’t want you to use steroids. They can hurt you. . . . But I have to say I am proud of the fact you would sacrifice like that so we could have a great team.”

And then he doesn’t test.

What do you think the kid will do next?

These coaches. They kill me. They fly across the country, drive up to some little house, sit in the living room, eat Mother’s apple pie, smoke pipes with Dad, talk about how much they want to look after junior — then the kid comes in and starts sticking needles in his arm and puts on 80 pounds.

And when the news leaks out, where is the coach? Who knows? This was MSU’s

response to the story Wednesday: The university’s public relations director read a mumbo-jumbo statement about MSU’s very efficient testing program.

Now, that’ll make Mom and Dad feel real secure. Solution is simple: Test and test again

Now, I know Perles isn’t the only coach to whom this has happened. And I agree, players — and the athletic director, Doug Weaver — must share the blame. But as I see it, the No. 1 priority of a coach is the welfare of his players, particularly their health. To fail at this is to fail at his job.

In Japan, when dishonor is brought to a company, the president resigns. In war, a sergeant must account for the actions of his troops. Why then, in college sports, are the lines so fuzzy? When a team is losing, it’s the coach’s fault, and he’s fired.

But when the team is winning, and suddenly there’s a scandal, well, gee, those boosters don’t want to lose good old coach. Look at what’s going on at North Carolina State, where basketball players have admitted everything from recruiting violations to point-shaving, and yet the coach, Jim Valvano, is still employed. Incredible.

And you know what? I can see point-shaving happening behind a coach’s back

faster than I can steroids. How can you ignore the muscle, the blotches of acne, the aggression? And the solution — unlike point shaving — is so simple. Test. Randomly. All the time. You make that your policy. Someone doesn’t want his civil rights violated? Let him go to another school.

Yet, as of this moment, MSU does not do that.

When Perles was up for the athletic director’s job, I received lots of mail criticizing me for saying that he shouldn’t get it, no coach should. Now do you see why? Can you imagine if a worried player came to the AD instead of a newspaper and asked for something to be done about steroids in football? Think about it.

The word is that several MSU players who used steroids had a motto: “At least we’ll die big.”

Let that sit on your conscience, George.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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