In a recently published Al Jazeera report on doping in professional sports, Liam Collins uses a notepad as he talks with pharmacist Charlie Sly about his alleged activities in supplying top athletes with performance-enhancing drugs. Journalists, of course, use notepads all the time during interviews; they’re a standard item in the reportorial toolbag.
This, however, wasn’t a standard story. Collins is an elite British hurdler who signed up with Al Jazeera to do an undercover sting on the tenebrous channels through which athletes procure performance-enhancing drugs. He meets Sly on the premise that, at age 37, he needs a boost to make a last-ditch run at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. On top of that imperative, Collins is seen as a possible conduit to a new market of European soccer players and the like. After Sly talks about all the famous athletes he has served, Collins says he’ll have to take notes in order to remember them for the marketing campaign. “He had [the notepad] on his lap,” says Al Jazeera’s Deborah Davies in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog.
The notepad approach makes for a compelling documentary. For example, Collins asks Sly:
“So with the likes of [Phillies star Ryan] Howard, once you’ve set him off, is there like maintenance thing?”
Sly: “He’s somebody that you cannot overwhelm with stuff. You just make sure you have everything in bags.”
A lawyer for Howard called the claims in the Al Jazeera investigation “completely false.”
Here’s another gem from the hour-long Al Jazeera investigation:
Collins: “If anyone ever says what about testosterone, what’s your typical answer?”
Sly: “You don’t need it if you’re taking Delta-2.” (Delta-2 is a hormone supplement) “Some guys just take it every day, like they refuse to stop it.”
Collins: “Who’s like the biggest hard-head?”
Sly: “I don’t know, maybe Mike Neal.”
Neal is a linebacker with the Green Bay Packers and didn’t respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment. When questioned about the report after its airing, Neal said this: “You might as well just stop asking me questions. I mean, I’m sure you saw how (expletive) off Peyton Manning was about somebody coming out with false accusations, so if you want to (expletive) me off, that’s one thing, but please don’t…if you want to talk about football, let’s talk about football.”
And so it goes: Based on its 27-plus hours of undercover footage over seven meetings and 12 days with Sly, Al Jazeera manages to convey all manner of accusations not only at Howard and Dean, but also at Washington National Ryan Zimmerman, Green Bay Packers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Bronco Peyton Manning. Both the NFL and Major League Baseball have vowed to investigate the allegations, a common stance from the pro leagues.
In easily the most explosive part of the report, Sly tells Collins that he formerly worked at the Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine, an anti-aging clinic in Indianapolis. Manning sat out the 2011 season with a potentially career-ending neck injury, and Sly attests that he met with Manning during his rehab. As Sly tells Collins in a recorded conversation: “One thing that [Dale] Guyer does is he dispenses drugs out of his office…and all the time we would be sending Ashley Manning drugs. Like, growth hormone, all the time, everywhere, Florida. It would never be under Peyton’s name. Always under her name.” Growth hormone is banned by the NFL.
Here’s the reaction from Manning himself: “What hurts me the most about this, whoever this guy is, this slapstick trying to insinuate that in 2011, when more than less I had a broken neck — I had four neck surgeries. … It stings me whoever this guy is to insinuate that I cut corners, I broke NFL rules in order to get healthy. It’s a joke. It’s a freaking joke….I’m trying to understand how someone can make something up about somebody, admit that he made it up and yet somehow it gets published in a story. I don’t understand that.” Manning denied ever taking growth hormone.
In her chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Al Jazeera’s Davies notes that the investigation levels no allegation that Manning took anything — merely that the clinic made shipments to Manning’s wife. “We are simply reporting, when he was at Guyer, they were sending growth hormone all the time to Ashley Manning in Florida and that has not been denied,” says Davies. Another wrinkle relates to Sly’s record of employment at the Guyer clinic. The Al Jazeera report claims that he was there in 2011, whereas a statement from the clinic indicates otherwise:
Davies tells this blog that she made a recorded call to the clinic confirming Sly’s employment dates. Though Davies didn’t identify herself as a journalist, she did get an indication from the Guyer employee that Sly was there in 2011. “When people don’t think there’s any reason to cover anything up, they’re happy to tell you the facts,” says Davies.
In another newsworthy twist, Sly himself has recorded a brief video in which he bails on his recorded statements to Collins. “I am recanting any such statements and there is no truth to any statement of mine that Al Jazeera plans to air.”
So: Hours of candid riffing about his business, versus a carefully worded recantation. Which would you believe?
The charges and counter-charges have trudged back and forth on cable news over the past couple of days, with the athletes and their supporters find ever-more-indignant ways of dismissing Al Jazeera’s reporting. As sports fans well know, doping allegations surfaced by the media have a history of prompting full-throated denials from the accused. Too many such denials have unraveled upon further investigation, leaving any honest doping deniers little chance of being taken seriously. Internet slideshows tell that story.
The argument in favor of the athletes in the Al Jazeera case isn’t tough to game out: The news organization is hanging a raft of serious charges on the casual blather of some guy in Texas. Not so fast, says Davies: Sly’s not just some guy. He was referred to Collins by doping types in Vancouver, who recommended Sly as the wonderboy of athletic enhancement. “He still to this day built the best NFL athlete that ever existed athletically,” said one expert. He’s got a fridge full of pharmaceuticals. Furthermore, on one trip to Sly’s place, Collins encounters a professional baseball player who recounted his drug-testing anxieties. During the first Collins-Sly meeting, Davies also notes, Sly receives calls from athletes and excused himself from Collins’s presence. Had Sly been a charlatan, argues Davies, he would have done everything possible to boast about his contacts. “This is a man who’s happy to talk but who’s not bragging,” says Davies.
Another black mark relates to Collins’ own history in property development, which ended with investors losing millions of dollars and Collins being banned as a “company director,” as the Al Jazeera investigation disclosed.
An undercover investigation like this doesn’t hatch for just any reason, Davies tells the Erik Wemple Blog. Three conditions must be met first — some “prima facie evidence of wrongdoing, not just a fishing expedition”; a subject matter that “people aren’t going to talk to you about openly”; and a public interest behind the topic.
Given the amount of money flowing into and from professional sports, that third criterion is a box that’s always checked. And it’s quite clear that athletes and their abettors aren’t rushing to do on-the-record interviews about their regimens. Indeed, Collins went to the Bahamas and chatted with a doctor who claimed he could get Erythropoietin ( a drug also known as EPO) for him, then later told Al Jazeera that he’d lied to Collins and can’t procure banned drugs. “So, I mean, you know, that proves why you need to secretly film in the first place, to be honest,” says Davies.