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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rules Are Rules

Baseball, cycling, the NFL…all three sports have been affected by the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Of the three, the NFL appears to be relatively unstained by the taint of PEDs. Baseball and cycling have the façade of more sophisticated gentlemen participating in their sports, sports in which the stench of doping cannot be tolerated among those in their elite communities of sportsmen.


Professional sports are filled with ruthless competitors whose job it is to win. The athletes did not magically transform the first day they cashed a check to participate in their sports. They have been wired since childhood to be intense competitors. This competitive drive is what enabled these athletes to rise to the elite level that enabled them to compete professionally in the first place.

Baseball and cycling have suffered from black eyes as their biggest stars (in the case of cycling, its only star, Lance Armstrong) have been either caught using PEDs or had more evidence suggesting PED use pile up against them than they can explain. The pattern is fairly consistent. Adamant denial of willful PED use (or any PED use) by the athlete in question is followed by more evidence that there was intentional, continued PED use. This is often followed by a media circus involving finger pointing by the accused, rumors and innuendo.

If there is a positive PED test involved, the athlete apologizes, sometimes trying to whitewash the incident by saying he did it to help his team or for the fans. If there is no smoking gun, the accused will continue the denial, in spite of indictments and/or convictions for perjury, until it is more beneficial to that athlete’s interests to have a mea culpa and fess up.

MLB and the ICU 1

I got tired just thinking about all of the twists and turns that these guys put themselves and the public through in an effort to control the damage done by their PED use. None of the continued negative publicity can help the perceived integrity of any sport. This brings me back to the NFL.

We all know that the NFL has PED use. Suspensions are doled out, seemingly, every week. Yet we seldom see articles or hear discussions in the media about the NFL’s PED problem. I cannot think of a single NFL player whose public image has been irreparably damaged by PED accusations although I lost track of the different players busted and suspended for PED use. Why?

First and foremost, the NFL “don’t play that”. NFL locker rooms became infested by steroids in the 1970s, according to former player statements. The NFL took proactive measure after proactive measure, beginning in the 1980s, to screen and penalize players abusing any questionable substance. Today, that list of substances includes an endless list of products available over the counter at the GNC in a shopping center. I personally think that the policy is a bit overreaching and unreasonable, but what I cannot accuse the NFL of doing is being soft on PED use. The league has a policy with specific, progressive penalties.

Most importantly, when a player’s punishment is over, it’s over. To borrow a line from rapper Willie D. of the Geto Boys, “You do your time then you come on back.” The NFL does not encourage a post-positive test witch hunt to decide what would have or could have happened had PEDs not been used. The NFL has a culture of players doing everything in their power to help their teams win.

It is a violent game. Careers are short. Players leave everything they have on the field or they will probably not have a job the following week. I think this environment is prohibitive to vilification among peers when a player returns after being caught and punished for using PEDs.

Baseball and cycling had a harder time covering up their inconsistencies than these women did playing Twister. 2


The NFL has a menu of banned substances and specific penalties for breaking the rules. That is its policy. Its culture demands personal responsibility by the players for compliance with the policy, but also considers the penalty, never less than a four game suspension in a 16 game season, to be full payment for the debt incurred to the NFL and its stakeholders. Think of it as a cash and carry ordeal, relatively unremarkable.

Major League Baseball benefitted tremendously from increased interest during the 1990s as home runs were being hit at some of the highest rates in the history of the game. As the expression goes, “chicks dig the long ball”. So did MLB. Until the suspicion and speculation of PED use pushed MLB to react, there was no policy forbidding the use of steroids in baseball. MLB began a program of screening players for steroids, human growth hormone (HGH) and a handful of other substances in 2003. MLB’s policy was reactive and reluctant as were their players to comply with policy and admit guilt in tarnishing the game. Why should they? The game encouraged their behavior.

International cycling regulations, as I understand, can call for drug testing of cyclists multiple times in a single week. I do not follow cycling, but from the discussions I have heard in major sports media, everyone dopes. I don’t mean “everyone” as in “many” or “most”. From what I have heard and read from credible sources, I believe that every last participant in high level international cycling has used PEDs during their professional careers. Armstrong, however, was tested hundreds of times in his career and never had a positive drug test. Yet, he recently confessed in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that he used PEDs. The International Cycling Union (ICU) had a policy that was reactive to the widespread culture of accepted doping, across the board, by its participants. Clearly, its screening methods were ineffective as Armstrong was never screened out through repeated efforts by the ICU process. That environment sounds like one in which non-dopers need not participate if they expect to compete.

Barry Bonds hits a single season record 73rd home run in 2001, at age 36. Bonds, one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game (PEDs or otherwise), had never hit 50 before (or after) the 2001 season. Major League Baseball wanted it; they got it. Own it. 3

In the final equation, the NFL has a black-and-white policy with specific, stated consequences and very little encouragement of speculation of additional questionable activities or results outside of the process. It dealt with a problem and moved on with the business of football. The terms and conditions are clear. The NFL is the king of the sports hill and PED use is not a major topic among football fans.

Baseball also had clear terms and conditions. Players could use steroids without MLB imposed consequences prior to 2003. There would be penalties after 2003. However, players, MLB administrators, and writers want to live in an alternative reality in which that was not the case. It was. The public knows it. Continued denial, such as the Baseball Writers Association of America pretending that Hall of Fame players during the era did not advance the sport and did not represent the elite players of the era (whose competitive landscape was dictated by Major League Baseball’s deliberate inaction on PEDs), is met with reactions from mockery to indifference by John Q. Fan.

Cycling, apparently, is openly corrupt. Yet the ICU presents a front that no corruption is tolerated. In fact, contempt for Lance Armstrong among his peers appears to be fueled by his attempts to cover up his doping to preserve his manufactured image, not the doping itself. Armstrong rubbed people the wrong way for violating the honor amongst thieves, not partaking in it.

When all is said and done, you are what you are. The NFL was never under any delusions about the proliferation of PEDs into its game. They got ahead of the curve, demonstrated an authentic commitment to mitigate the impact of PEDs and remained consistent in the application of its rules. Baseball and cycling reaped the benefits of PEDs just as its participants did. They caved to widespread speculation about the use of PEDs and then attempted to salvage an integrity that it never had by crafting reactionary policies and throwing the same people under the bus that helped promote the sport. As long as those sports serve baloney, the media and the public will continue to call it baloney and return the meal to the kitchen until they see a steak, and no bull.
Sports junkies may be sick and tired of hearing about "The Shield" but there is a reason NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is so passionate, possibly to the point of excess, in defending it. See Major League Baseball as a counter-reference. 4 

1) Image from
2) Image from
3) Image from
4) The NFL Shield is a registered trademark of the National Football League

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