Greg Cote: Alex Rodriguez, Ray Lewis, Lance Armstrong prove sports scandals now routine

We have come to expect our sports stars to let us down in some way, and to wonder if the ones who haven’t simply haven’t been caught yet.

That is how bad it has gotten. Our athletes have turned into devalued ex-heroes.

The examples have become a sad, relentless parade so routine that we mostly are numb. A DUI or fracas outside a strip club hardly rates as news. A football player suspended four games for a failed drug test barely draws our notice.

Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez, though, gets our attention. Especially when A-Rod’s name jumps out on an alleged list of clients — some with University of Miami ties — reported to have gotten performance-enhancing drugs from a shady clinic right across the street from UM.

Ravens superstar Ray Lewis, the ex-Hurricane, makes the accused athlete A-list as well. Especially when the damning story was all but Fed-Ex’d right onto the national Super Bowl stage this week, and when his alleged banned substance of choice bore the exotically ridiculous name “deer antler velvet extract.”

If anybody is listening, both men proclaim their innocence.

I say if anybody is listening because this is not a good time for athlete denials. Bad market for those. In sports, we find our benefit of doubt is spent. It’s all gone.

Call it the Lance Effect.

Lance Armstrong spent a decade winning Tour de Frances and being a hero for his cancer fight and denying he ever used PEDs — denying it with impassioned vehemence and indignation — until the very minute he entered the Oprah confessional and said he had been cheating and lying the whole damned time.

Now, post-Lance, how can sports fans be as trusting? To be so puts us at risk of being found naïve. And look where naivete got Manti Te’o.

Armstrong cheated because he said just about everybody else in cycling was doing it, and it begs us to wonder how prevalently that attitude cuts across all sports. The separation can be so small between starring and failing at the top level that it only makes sense most athletes — facing finite careers and with egos and millions of dollars in play — would pursue every possible edge.

But did that pursuit lead Rodriguez to begin dealing with alleged PED-peddler Anthony Bosch of the Biogenesis “anti-aging” clinic as Miami New Times reported?

Did it lead Lewis to experiment with the deer antler extract containing the banned substance IGF-1 as Sports Illustrated reported? (As if deer antlers weren’t enough, Lewis’ accuser, Mitch Ross of the Alabama-based company Sports With Alternatives to Steroids, is a former stripper. Of course he is!)

A-Rod says no. He said in a statement he has had no connection to Bosch or that now-shuttered clinic and that “the purported documents” referring to him as reported “are not legitimate.” Rodriguez, of course, previously admitted to using steroids from 2001 to 2003. That seems to lend credence to the allegations of more recent use, but falls short of proving them.

Heck, maybe all of the sports figures named in that report, from other big-leaguers down to UM baseball conditioning coach Jimmy Goins, are all innocent, all wrongly accused.

Is anybody listening to their denials, though?

Or are we instead hearing a sweating Roger Clemens claim his trainer was lying, or hearing Barry Bonds testify he thought the steroids were flaxseed oil and arthritis cream?

Or are we picturing Lance with Oprah, finally coming clean about being so dirty?

In the context of this bad market for athlete denials Lewis is summoning the force of his evangelical personality and the power of a Super Bowl pulpit to convince everyone his accuser “has no credibility.” “I never, ever took what he says,” Lewis insists. In vintage Ray-style he calls the rumors “a trick of the devil.”

His accuser has a tape of Lewis discussing the deer antler substance with him and asking him to send some. Does that prove Lewis actually used the product? No. But he still fights uphill against the credibility of SI and against the Lance Effect — a collective skepticism about athletes that has calloused and become hard.

Lewis also said: “I truly believe [my accuser] does not have the privilege for me to speak about [this] ever again.”

In a vacuum, Lewis might have a point. But in these times? No. In the court of public opinion, presumption of innocence is not the law. And the concept is harder and harder to expect as more and more athletes prove undeserving of it.

I feel badly for athletes guilty of no wrongdoing who get painted by such a broad brush, and I like to think they are still the majority. I especially feel badly for athletes who are wrongly accused and can’t find buyers for their claims of innocence.

The athletes created this monster, though.

There can be little doubt that many if not most used car salesmen probably are good people, honest and ready to cut you a fair deal. Yet their collective reputation and stereotype precedes them. The job title alone is onerous, fair or not.

The professional athlete is becoming like that.

A once-glorified line of work associated with heroics, cheering and great skill has been devalued by degrees, to the point “athlete” in a word association game is now as likely to conjure thoughts of arrests, performance-enhancing drugs, lying, cheating and scandal.

So we read Rodriguez’s statement of strong denial, we hear an angry Lewis call his accuser a “coward.” and we want to be fair so we reach down to where our benefit of doubt used to be but it’s all gone.

A-Rod and Ray are talking, but all we’re hearing is Lance Armstrong, the man who forever made it harder to believe.