We don't really care about HGH testing in NFL -- or we'd have it
Baseball's drug cheats face inexorable scorn, but good luck finding outrage when an NFL player is caught. The message? The NFL and its fans don't truly care about PEDs.
Who is the face of PEDs in Major League Baseball? It's a difficult question, right? I mean, where do you begin?
One could make the case for Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or Jose Canseco or Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Braun and we could go on and on and on from there.
Who is the face of PEDs in the NFL? It's a difficult question, right? But for very different reasons.
Someone from the Steelers' dynasty teams in the dark ages of steroid use? Shawne Merriman? Tony Mandarich? Lyle Alzado?
I mean, really who is it? Which names instantly pop into heads when the subject is broached, and more so than sadness or regret (as in the case of Alzado), the very uttering of the name invokes a particular degree of scorn? I honestly have difficultly coming up with the guy.
Why is that? Sure, household names like Shawne Merriman and Brian Cushing have served suspensions for using banned substances in the NFL, but you never heard the kind of venom -- continued, unrelenting venom -- directed at them. You don't hear the same kind of references made. You never saw fans chanting them in derision or carrying huge cutouts of syringes to games or anything like that. You don't hear the chants with regularity at games ("A-Roid! A-Roid!").
The dichotomy, at times, can be striking. And I have no shortage of thoughts as to why. This week, in particular, I believe speaks to the decidedly different fan culture within these two sports.
Cases in point: MLB and its players union just agreed to ramp up baseball's already stringent testing standards and penalties. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig essentially declared Hank Aaron and not Bonds baseball's real home run king. And Braun was derided and belittled while playing on the road in Philadelphia for his lying and cheating about what he puts in his body. Elsewhere, the NFL and its players' union just spent a considerable amount of time face-to-face to talk about the state of their game, and, from what I'm told, not a single word was spoken about the lack of HGH testing in the league.
Not a breath. I imagine, not even a thought.
So I ask again, why is that?
First, let's take a quick look back. Going on four years ago, commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA leader DeMaurice Smith hammered out a new collective bargaining agreement that suspiciously omitted any specifics as to how they would implement HGH testing, though both men trumpeted the fact that this agreement would include it.
Last year the NFL and NFLPA agreed on protocols and testing levels and pretty much everything it would require to get HGH testing going as part of a new global drug policy, though they continue to be at a loggerhead over one significant issue.
If a player is found to have ties to a PED clinic -- like the baseball Biogenesis case -- or there is paperwork tying him to shipments or he is a part of a drug investigation, but he has not had a failed drug test, the NFLPA is adamant that any appeal of a penalty for those actions should be heard by a third party arbitrator who is agreed to by the league and the union (like baseball). The NFL is just as adamant that those appeals should essentially remain the domain of the league.
And here we sit.
There are no new talks on this subject planned, I'm told, no timetable for a resolution and not an iota of discussion about it at the summit between these sides this week. And, I would add, there isn't much real outside pressure to finally get this thing resolved, either, and certainly nothing close to what baseball has endured.
Remember those half-cocked Congressional hearings on football's lagging drug testing a while back? And all the follow up that was supposed to come and veiled threats of deadlines that must be met by politicians? Where did that go? We've played an entire season since then and nothing has changed at all. Still nothing on HGH testing.
Here's the underlying reality of all sports: Most big change isn't enacted until there are financial ramifications to doing do. Fears of attendance dropping or sponsors pulling out or some indication that the league is falling behind the cultural zeitgeist. Baseball faced just such a crisis in the wake of the drug aftermath of its giants, literally, being found or suspected of cheating on their quests to shatter the home run record of Roger Maris (and then later Aaron's all-time record).
All of a sudden statistical platitudes that stood for generations -- hallmarks like 50-homer seasons and 500-homer careers -- were losing their historical significance as every Tom, Dick and Harry set his sights in any given year of going from relative obscurity to massive power production, altering the scope of the game.
It was tugging at the fabric of the game and altering perceptions. Eventually, the push for change outside the game, public relations damage and the threat of fiscal repercussions combined to form a cauldron baseball could not ignore. Players were going to be punished severely and testing protocols were going to soar to new levels and that was that. Good of the game and all.
So, where is that outrage in football?
We all know guys are using. A very, very large number of guys, I'd imagine. We don't need to belabor the morality of the issue here (personally, I'm not here to judge grown men for making tough choices that could alter their generational earning potential). Suffice to say the economic disincentives to using HGH currently in no way match the potential benefit from using it at this point. That frames decision-making in any line of work (I recall a bit from Econ 101), and it certainly applies here.
And football is a far less statistical-based sport with fewer numbers that resonate as loudly as 500 homers or 3,000 hits or 300 wins, etc. It doesn't seem skewed in the same way baseball was, and guys aren't labeled culprits nearly in the way baseball players are.
The stigma just isn't the same: Football players aren't charged with altering the historical landscape of the sport. Who is football's real all-time sack king -- Deacon Jones? I mean, would anyone even consider the notion? Would anyone even think in pre-steroid testing or post-steroid terms in the NFL? (Never mind the fact there is overwhelming evidence that several of the game's all-time best clubs were chemically enhanced).
And football is at its core a gladiator sport. We want our gridiron gods bigger and faster and stronger, and there isn't a backlash if they look more like Hulk Hogan than Dick Butkus. It's actually accepted and championed. And we don't really want to know how they go there, do we?
When football players get suspended, you hear much more fan angst about how it impacts his or her fantasy football team, or the point spread, or a team's ability to win, than you hear widespread indignation at the individual act itself. Sure, the fact the quarterbacks aren't getting popped for PEDs has something to do with why football's misdeed-ers are more nameless and faceless, but I believe it goes much deeper than that.
If there was real demand from consumers, business partners and Corporate America that the NFL be as clean as humanly possible and governed by the most strident testing possible, then ain't no way there would be a three-year lag between the alleged trigger of HGH testing and the malaise we still find ourselves in regarding this topic now.
"I really think the players want testing more than the fans do," said one NFLPA official. "Both for health-and-safety reasons, and for a level playing field. I would agree, there isn't the sort of outside pressure there is in baseball. I'd agree with you: I'm not sure how much the fans really care."
Players return from PED suspensions in the NFL, and it's almost as if they never left. There is no trail of tears, no scourge upon them, no scarlet letter. Really, there are few questions asked. We don't know the hows and whys and where it came from. We get the same sort of milquetoast denials that apply to athletes in every sport -- "I wasn't aware the supplement contained banned substances" -- and then we all collectively move on (media included; the salaciousness that comes with outing a user or unearthing a drug scandal in baseball just isn't there for the old pigskin).
Occasionally names of football players might pop up in regard to some larger baseball drug scandal involving a Biogenesis-type operation, but then fades into the abyss.
And I think, by and large, we want it that way. Don't ask too much and don't expect to hear too much, either, and just keep pummeling each other every Sunday. That's how we like it, and that's how it is, and that's why I can't help but wonder if a year from now I might be able to write another column about the lack of HGH testing in the NFL.
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