STEROIDS AND illegal performance-enhancing drugs are nothing to joke about, and the fact that an athlete like Danica Patrick could try to pass off an ill-conceived comment about drug use as a joke is the whole problem with the athletic/drug culture.

In an interview published in Sports Illustrated on Monday, Dan Patrick asked Danica Patrick if she would take performance-enhancing drugs if she would not get caught and it would lead to her winning the Indianapolis 500.

Danica, who finished third at Indy last month, said, "Well, then it's not cheating, is it? If nobody finds out?

"Yeah," she added. "It would be like finding a gray area. In motorsports, we work in gray areas a lot. You're trying to find where the holes are in the rule book."

After being criticized by U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart, who said Patrick had "undercut what millions of parents try best to teach their kids every day in this country, that winners never cheat and cheaters never win," Danica went into spin control.

She told USA Today that her answer was a "bad joke," mentioned the sensitivity to PED usage in our society and said, "It's a shame kids think they have to do this to get ahead. It's very dangerous."

Yes, it is dangerous, and in some cases we've seen PED use by kids turn out to be deadly.

But the biggest shame in kids thinking that they have to use illegal drugs to get ahead is that they see repeated examples of it working every day in the world of professional athletics.

Major League Baseball suspends Manny Ramirez 50 games for violating league drug policy. But he still has a 2-year contract worth $45 million - less the games he misses because of the suspension.

Alex Rodriguez has already earned $230 million during his time in the majors and still has 9 years remaining on the 10-year, $275 million contract he signed before the 2008 season.

A-Rod has admitted that some of his $500 million performance was fueled by illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

The bank will still cash his checks.

Marion Jones lived a life of luxury, fame, fortune and adulation by cheating her way to the top of track and field and to Olympic glory by using illegal designer drugs.

Yes, she eventually fell, not because she cheated, but only because she lied to government law-enforcement agents when confronted about her drug use.

A complete list of drug-tainted athletes would fill not just my column but also likely the entire sports section, possibly the whole newspaper.

Football, basketball, hockey, soccer, cycling, track and field, swimming, gymnastics - virtually every sport, some more than others, have incidents of athletes reaching the highest level of achievement through the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

So really, tell me how we realistically expect impressionable kids with dreams of becoming famous athletes to shy away from performance-enhancing drugs when they have so many examples of it working for the greats they strive to emulate?

I'm not trying to pick on Danica Patrick because she just happens to be the flavor of the day. But she probably doesn't realize the worst part of her statement.

She apologized for the reference to illegal performance-enhancing drug use, but the motivation for doing it was ignored.

The excuse that it's not cheating if no one finds out goes against the basic core of competition, yet over time it has become the prevalent belief in sports.

The "gray areas" and "holes" in the rule book that Danica Patrick says everyone is trying to find are called "cheating."

Rule books aren't written in gray. The are written in crystal-clear black and white.

Looking for loopholes and gray areas to bend, flex or stretch is called "cheating."

Unfortunately, we've accepted that as how things are.

Instead of cheating, we refer to it as "gamesmanship" or "getting one up."

The use of performance-enhancing drugs is simply the natural extension of our laughing off the spitball to the extent that Gaylord Perry, an admitted cheater, could be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame based on numbers achieved primarily through breaking the rules.

But that's where we are as a society - cheating isn't cheating unless you get caught. Sportsmanship is for losers, not champions.

Cheaters do prosper, and a lot of us are OK with that.

Danica Patrick was right. It was a joke, a joke on anyone who still held the belief that integrity, honor and fair play still have any meaning in sport. *

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