They say ignorance is bliss. The less a person knows, the logic states, the less a person will have the opportunity to be disappointed, angered, saddened or any of the other negative emotions that often bubble to the surface when the curtain is pulled back on a previously accepted falsehood.

As children, we basically believe the world is inherently good, but that’s mainly because our knowledge of the dirtier, scarier facets of humanity is relatively limited. (This is the case for those of us fortunate to have had the sorts of childhoods that produce well-adjusted adults, anyway.) As we get older, the gradual (or sometimes overwhelming) revelation of those truths tends to jade that perception, leaving many adults cynical husks of their childhood selves by the time they reach their mid-20s.

If you asked sports fans who came of age in the 1980s and ’90s about some of the significant revelations in their lives, most would likely point to the times they learned about the presence and widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs among athletes they had grown to respect greatly. While the NFL has battled its own PED issues since banning steroids in 1987, the scandals in Major League Baseball in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and the nonstop media circus that came with them, brought this issue into sharp focus for almost everyone who pays attention to sports.

Flash forward to 2012, and the issue has not died down one bit. World-class cyclist Lance Armstrong was recently stripped of his seven Tour de France victories after dropping his challenge to sanctions handed down by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for Armstrong’s alleged use and distribution of PEDs to his teammates. Of course, Armstrong is only the most prominent cyclist to be sanctioned for doping, but the sport has a long and dirty history of PED use among its athletes.

Again, that’s just one example of a recent PED scandal in sports, but it certainly won’t be the last. For some reason, the same media organizations who profit so generously from their partnerships with major sports organizations also feel the need to ruthlessly and relentlessly tear down the athletes they cover for the slightest infraction. Naturally, then, when a prominent athlete comes under suspicion of doping, it’s near the top of every SportsCenter broadcast and website story lineup for several days.

As MMA becomes a bigger part of the mainstream sporting community, then, a brighter spotlight than ever will be shone on its athletes and the relative amounts of pharmacological enhancement present in each. Therefore, the question must be asked of all MMA fans before ESPN really starts digging: How much do you really want to know?

Today, the prevalence of drug-related suspensions in MMA is relatively low—even though some claim that up to 90 percent of the UFC’s current fighters cycle on and off of PEDs. If the UFC were to put in place a more stringent testing system, one could probably expect an uptick in positive PED tests. This would have the effective result of “cleaning up the sport,” which is what so many claim to want, so that’s good, right?

Well, maybe not. While a more rigorous PED testing program would certainly result in a more effective way to measure fighters’ levels of cleanliness, it might not actually trigger a decrease in actual PED use. Instead, what would first happen is a lot of events being altered and fight results being reversed. Then, as has happened in every other sport whose governing bodies decided to “crack down” on doping, enterprising chemists like the folks from the infamous BALCO lab will develop new substances that are more difficult or impossible to detect. Eventually, the use of those substances will be revealed, a new test will be devised and implemented and the cycle will repeat itself. Is that what we want?

This is certainly not an argument for the elimination of PED testing in sports, but simple economics dictates that the regulatory bodies’ ability to reduce the supply of PEDs in sports will never be able to keep up with the steady demand for them among athletes (and, let’s be real, their coaches and owners). As long as the demand is there, there will always be people whose desire to make a dollar greatly outweighs any moral quandaries that might come with the proliferation of PEDs in pro sports. Therefore, like the other War on Drugs being fought in America, the PED train in sports will keep chugging along as long as the demand equals or outweighs the supply. They can keep testing, but the athletes are going to keep taking.

It’s not like this is some secret. Deep down, any sports fan who is capable of even the most minimal of critical thought has asked him or herself, “I wonder how many of these folks are doping,” and then answered, “Probably a lot.” This train of thought, like the questions sports fans have been increasingly asking themselves about the long-term brain health of some of their favorite athletes, has created among modern American sports fans what’s referred to as “cognitive dissonance.” Sports fans love watching sports, but if they pay attention to the news off the field, they also have reason to suspect many of their favorite athletes are doping, which they’ve been taught to believe is bad. So they want to watch sports, but they don’t want to support people who are behaving badly. Cognitive dissonance.

To cope with this cognitive dissonance, sports fans have learned to ignore any suspicion of PED use among their beloved athletes (which enables them to continue to enjoy watching sports without having to worry about supporting “bad” people) but come down with furious anger on those athletes who do test positive (which enables them to further justify their continued viewership by placing them on the perceived side of justice).

Is it hypocritical? You bet it is. But fans are just taking their cues from the networks that air the sports they love. After all, how many times have we seen a certain 24-hour sports outlet spend 15 minutes discussing the evils of PED use by MLB Athlete X and then turn around and promo that night’s baseball game (airing, of course, on that very network). This says nothing of the time the United States Congress has wasted—yes, wasted—with its periodic Congressional Hearings on Doping in Sports.

(Thank goodness Congress has yet to catch a whiff of the PED rumors in MMA. One shutters to imagine the line of questioning the proverbial 68-year-old gentleman from New Hampshire would have for anyone involved in cage fighting.)

What’s worse than either of these examples, however, is the way in which some organizations (the San Francisco Giants) rewrite history to ignore their association with suspected PED users (Barry Bonds) after spending more than a decade making money hand-over fist promoting the very accomplishments that those athletes’ use of PEDs enabled them to perform in the first place (the home run record).

Is it any wonder, then, why sports fans would rather live in blissful ignorance of the true extent of PED use among athletes, and continue the charade of treating those who test positive like criminals, than have the sports they love significantly altered as the result of a more stringent PED testing program? If the NFL and MLB both decided to implement the standards currently being used by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, for example, who’s to say how many of our favorite big-name athletes would be suspended. How would sports fans react when forced to reconcile the cognitive dissonance that would then be on full display?

In MMA, things are a bit different. Sure, there are a fair number of fans who not only want blood in the cage, but also a pound of flesh when a fighter is busted for doping. But, because MMA is a relatively new sport (with more fans who have grown up in the steroid era of professional athletics), it’s become an accepted fact that many fighters are likely taking more than just their vitamins. Chael Sonnen basically presented a doctor’s note to an athletic commission and had said athletic commission outright allow him to use PEDs. Despite this fact, he’s become one of the UFC’s most marketable fighters and is about to get his second consecutive title shot. This is not to say that MMA is not concerned with testing fighters for PEDs—there have, after all, been some fairly prominent drug-related suspensions of late—but one would be hard-pressed to find an NFL athlete, for example, who is allowed to undergo testosterone replacement therapy by the league.

This isn’t actually much different than other sports, only the vitriol surrounding an NFL or MLB athlete’s positive PED test seems to be much more significant. Perhaps this is simply a product of MMA’s lesser prominence. In any case, the next time you see that an athlete has tested positive for PEDs, pay close attention to how fans bash the player and the media renews its crusade to expose the truth about PEDs in sports. Then, watch as those same fans pack stadiums across the country the very next Sunday and the media encourages you to tune in.

Ignorance is bliss.

Photo: Fans watching a UFC event (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.