Ignorance is…profitable? The NFL’s PED indifference

Ignorance is…profitable? The NFL’s PED indifference
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We live in a chemically dependent society.


It’s certainly no secret that we’re all subject to the whims of our doctors, aches, pains, conditions, habits, and proclivities.  The average adult over the age of 35 has at least one prescription bottle in their medicine chest, and for most of us, it’s standard fare – treatments for hypertension, diabetes, insomnia, apnea, and other ailments are fairly common.  There’s certainly a hefty percentage of illicit drug users – recreational or addictive – to account for, and with the recent focus on marijuana legalization nationally, that number stands to increase.


Professional athletes are no different than the rest of us in this regard except, perhaps, in their intake levels.  It’s safe to assume that the average NFL ballplayer has a much larger need to control pain and injury, and chemical remedies, prescription or otherwise, are certainly the norm.  The same can be said of athletes in most professional sports, and occasionally, we hear reports of athletes with painkiller addictions, which often results from the over-prescription of Percocets, Oxycodon, or any number of highly-addictive substances by team doctors and medical personnel.  The increase of marijuana users – at least overtly – is often explained by the user as a means to control pain and enhance relaxation.


And then there’s performance enhancing drugs.  PEDs, if you will.


We’ll soon be hearing whether the Steelers’ James Harrison, the Packers’ Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, and free agent Mike Neal have to be subject to the NFL’s inquiry into the Al-Jazeera report’s debunked claims of PED use, which on the surface would appear to be a fool’s errand.  Despite protestations to the contrary, it’s hard to believe that the NFL, let alone its players, would be so seriously concerned about a story that has been discredited and recanted by its source.


PEDs carry a far different stigma than recreational drugs in professional sports, because they generally imply a level of impropriety on the part of the user.  This is clearly defined in Major League Baseball, where an initial failed PED test results in an 80-game suspension, a second in a 162-game (full season) suspension, and a third in a permanent/lifetime ban, revocable only by reapplication to the league after two years away from it.  Given the Draconian nature of these punishments, it’s a wonder that any baseball player would ever entertain the notion of using PEDs at all, let alone compulsively, as some are rumored to have done and continue to do.


In the NFL, the current PED policy carries a more in-depth system that includes testing manipulation (diurectics, sample substitution) as grounds for suspension (two games or six games if test result in failure).  Suspensions for actual use begin at four games for a first infraction, ten games for a second, and two full seasons for a third, with reinstatement possible, like MLB, after reapplying to the league after 24 months.


Pretty harsh in both cases.


Consider the MLB Hall of Fame.  Currently, no player suspected or convicted of PED use since approximately 1985 is included there, and while the offensive numbers from then to the present day are staggeringly, record-breakingly huge, no single player in this category has been able to garner more than 62% of voters’ support for inclusion.  This may change at some point, as PED use during the 80’s and 90’s was considered so rampant that differentiating between clean and using players is almost impossible.  Of course, PED testing didn’t begin in MLB until 2003 (with steroids being listed as banned substances since 1991), so it’s really tough to gauge who’s really culpable.


The NFL began testing for steroids in 1987, and it’s been suggested by some former players that more than half the league was using PEDs in some form prior to then.  This implies that many of the best players who shaped the NFL into the billion-dollar entity it is today were, in effect, cheating, and may very well occupy areas in the Hall of Fame.


None of this seems to have stopped anyone.


Every season, numerous players routinely test positive for PEDs and are suspended, including some prominent names that may well wind up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Consider the cases of longtime standout tight ends Tony Gonzales and Antonio Gates, once considered locks for football “immortality”, and both subject to four-game suspensions for PED use.  They will undoubtedly still garner consideration and will most likely gain entry, despite the fact that they will be the first players to do so that have been openly caught cheating in the modern sports era.  And there are others, and will continue to be others.  The NFL’s base of players generally have a short period in which they’re considered effective and roster-worthy, so it’s no surprise that many players use PEDs to prolong or enhance their performance abilities.


What’s surprising is the reaction of fans.  Most seem to accept PED use in the NFL as a matter of course, and most cynically feel that a majority of players use something – anything – chemical to gain an edge.  PED use in baseball, conversely, is met with scorn and derision.


It’s an apparent double standard, but also an understandable one in the context of the games themselves.  Baseball PED users show obvious, huge gains in their skills, as PEDs can “…make bad players good. They make good players great. They make great players hall of famers.” – Curt Schilling.  While undoubtedly true, when caught, it also exposes the depths of the advantage tainted players enjoy over non-users, thereby invoking the wrath of fans who despise being deceived in such a manner.


In the NFL, such gains are noticeable, but often much more fleeting.  There’s the case of the Chargers’ Shawne Merriman, the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2005, who collected 39.5 sacks in his first three seasons, and also incurred a four-game suspension for PED use in 2006.  Merriman was never the same after 2007, totaling six sacks in his remaining five seasons while contending with numerous injuries and related issues.  Many users also experience a rapid falloff after they stop using, which is another reason some never completely discontinue it.


And the fans generally don’t care.  It’s a “gladiator’s game” after all, which implies that any contribution by a player, no matter how brief, is appreciated.  It’s not necessarily viewed as cheating so much as it is maintaining.  For Harrison and Peppers, that reasoning makes them more subject to scrutiny than they probably deserve.


It’s all about the edge.  And it always will be.



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