When news broke Monday that Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Andrew Harris had been caught with a banned substance in his system, the fallout was swift, with opinions sprouting up from all pockets of the country.
For some, Harris was immediately branded a cheater.
Look at the comments section of any story that’s been written since the announcement and it’s clear there are those who have little time for excuses. How else would you explain Harris having metandienone — an anabolic steroid with a history in sports doping — in his urine?
Others have chosen to stand by Harris, who has remained adamant he did not knowingly ingest an illegal substance. Why would someone who has played 10 years in the CFL and has passed previous drug tests — including eight since joining the Bombers in 2016 — risk it all?
For Harris, he claims the positive test was the result of cross-contamination from an energy supplement he had taken, though he stopped short of naming what it is. There are reasons for why he didn’t publicly name the product, and we’ll get to that shortly.
But first, there is an important distinction to be made between these two sentiments. It’s not a matter of whether Harris is guilty or not. He was tested — and then re-tested on a B-sample — so, at the very least, he is guilty of ingesting a banned substance, knowingly or not.
Harris added the test identified only "small traces" of the steroid, which was backed up by a reliable source who had seen the final results.
But that doesn’t matter, either, at least when it comes to determining guilt in the eyes of the league. The CFL, in conjunction with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, employs a zero-tolerance policy.
The real question is whether you care to believe Harris.
“I don’t want my legacy, my season, my career to be tarnished because of this and, ultimately, that’s one of the hardest parts about this whole thing. I’ve put a lot into this, worked my ass off to get where I am today.” – Andrew Harris
I’ve been hesitant to share my own opinion. It’s never a good look to side with a professional athlete when you have no proof to back up your support. Even with players such as Harris, who are gracious with their time, both with the media and the Winnipeg community as a whole.
I’ve known Harris for some time and we have a good working relationship. We hosted a podcast together last year, and, being around the same age, have mutual friends outside of football.
That I’ve gotten to know him on a personal level is, at least in part, why I tend to lean towards giving him the benefit of the doubt. Mostly, though, given all he has to lose, I struggle to believe he could be that dumb.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what I believe. I have no stake in the game, so there’s little reason to try to convince you one way or the other.
But I do know how essential one’s reputation can be. As a journalist, there’s nothing more important than having the trust of your audience. In either case, whether a reporter or professional athlete, the only way to get back that trust is to earn it.
That’s exactly what Harris is trying to do.
The Bombers running back has mentioned a number of times that he plans to fight this uphill battle. He desperately wants to prove he’s telling the truth. After all, the stakes are at an all-time high for the Winnipeg native.
"I don’t want my legacy, my season, my career to be tarnished because of this and, ultimately, that’s one of the hardest parts about this whole thing," Harris told me Monday. "I’ve put a lot into this, worked my ass off to get where I am today."
Just this year, Harris became the all-time leader for yards from scrimmage (13,481) by a Canadian player. He also moved into the top 10 all-time for rushing yards, with 8,556. Prior to his suspension, the 32-year-old was on pace for 1,600 rushing yards in 2019; even with the two-game suspension, Harris might still win a third consecutive CFL rushing title.
Needless to say, Harris’s numbers make a strong case for an early ballot entry into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (CFHOF). After speaking with Mark DeNobile, the executive director and chief operating officer of the CFHOF for the past 11 years, it appears a failed test won’t impede Harris from entering the Hall once his career comes to an end.
Even though there isn’t a player in the Hall of Fame who has tested positive on a drug test, failing one test doesn’t automatically discount someone from consideration. The CFHOF does have a morality clause that can disqualify players, but it’s enacted only for crimes such as domestic abuse and murder.
For Harris, his focus is on the present. While the logistics haven’t been figured out just yet — and Harris prefers to keep his business, at least for now, behind closed doors — he has already started the process of testing the supplement he took.
There are a few different ways the pill could have been contaminated. In an ever-evolving industry, supplements can often escape stringent regulation. That could cause products labelled "pure" or "all-natural" to be, in fact, contaminated. Thus, Harris could simply test the pill and hope it comes back with traces of the steroid.
It’s not always that easy, though, as previous cases have shown some pills in a bottle can be contaminated while others aren’t. And that’s if they’re contaminated at all. With perhaps some luck, Harris could select the right pill(s) and get the answer he’s looking for.
Another, though much harder to prove, avenue is to investigate the manufacturing practices used by the supplement company. In some contamination cases, the same equipment that mixes or packages legal supplements were also used for illegal products. If not cleaned properly, there is a chance traces of one could alter the integrity of the other. Success here will mean little beyond offering Harris plausible doubt, so long as the pills Harris has tested aren’t dirty.
In the meantime, Harris has refused to stay idle. He’s already contacted the Canadian Football League Players Association (CFLPA) to become some form of spokesperson for the players’ union. While it’s definitely an effort to show sincerity within his own mission, Harris also wants to use his platform to prevent other players — across various sports — from facing the same situation he’s currently in.
"Andrew Harris has long been a respected and upstanding member of our association. This result is a stark reminder to players that they must be very cautious about what they put in their bodies and must be vigilant about any product consumption," Brian Ramsay, executive director of the CFLPA, told me. "We stand with Andrew and have discussed with him how we can work together to bring additional awareness to all athletes as they adhere to the various rules within their respective sport."
What Harris’s involvement with the CFLPA will be is anyone’s guess, as plans are still being discussed. But Harris is committed to joining forces for the foreseeable future and in doing so will continue to attach his name — and reputation — with steroid use, intentional or not.
When Harris first mentioned his interest for such an endeavour, I questioned what the point might be. Not that I felt it was a bad move, but you would think most players would want to distance themselves from a positive drug test.
"I want this to go away, for sure. I understand the consequences of keeping this around and having it attached to me," he said. "But I also want people to know that this is a mistake. There are definitely guilty parties and people who are doing things and trying to cheat but there are also a lot of people that come across the same situation as me. I just want to be able to, as shi–y as this sounds, be an example, set an example for someone else, so it doesn’t happen to them."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Thursday, August 29, 2019 at 9:59 PM CDT: Adds photo
12:19 AM: Fixes typo.