The NFL season is about to begin, and from coast to coast we'll find players in pads, fans in seats and league executives with their heads buried in sand.
This season should be kicking off under a cloud of steroid suspicion, but in what's either a miracle of marketing or one of black magic, the NFL's recent drug scandal - twice as salacious as anything that's hit baseball in the past decade - has raised few eyebrows.
Is it because there are no steroids in the NFL? Because we love football too much to criticize it? Or more likely: because the NFL suits have spent the past few years bragging about their substance-abuse program and we've grown comfortable taking their words as truth?
Their collective arrogance has run its course. It's time to stop pretending that the NFL's steroid-testing program is stringent and foolproof, that it's catching offenders and scaring off everyone else. Entering Week 1 of a new season, we now know that the NFL's program is flawed. And what seems equally alarming: League officials are responding to their unwelcome controversy in a manner reminiscent of the way baseball leaders initially dismissed its steroid controversy four years ago.
The Charlotte Observer recently shined a light on the NFL's problem. The number of players from the Carolina Panthers' 2003 team who received questionable prescriptions for substances banned by the league now stands at eight. Many of them did it in the week leading up to their Super Bowl appearance in February 2004.
This wasn't the 5-11 Cleveland Browns. We're talking about the year's best NFC team, the one that 90 million people around the globe tuned in to watch.
And these weren't fringe supplements or designer drugs that were undetectable. In fact, two of the players received prescriptions for stanozolol - the same steroid that Ben Johnson was caught using in the 1988 Olympics and the one that brought down Rafael Palmeiro last year.
"If you cheat in the NFL and use performance-enhancing drugs," Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association, told the New York Daily News, "you will get caught."
Yet somehow the league never caught a single one of the Panthers' players. (The details wouldn't have even come to light were it not for a maverick doctor and his meticulous records.) And somehow the league continues to pretend that there is no problem with its testing system. They want us to believe that whatever drug problem might have existed was surely confined to the city limits of Charlotte, and the Panthers are the only bad guys who know how to get around the league's strict rules.
The naivete is confounding and is setting up the NFL for a huge fall. Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, said the problems with the Panthers were just the "tip of the iceberg."
"We see how easy it is to get around the testing [regimen] and how widespread it was, people getting renewals on their prescriptions and everything else," Davis told the Observer. "That is a loophole that is going to have to be closed."
And let's not forget human growth hormone. The NFL still doesn't test for hGH, refusing to rely on blood tests like the ones used on Olympic athletes. Instead, the NFL has committed $500,000 - not nearly enough money, experts say - to continue researching a way to detect hGH through urine samples. And in the meantime? The entire league has a free pass to inject hGH indefinitely without fear of getting caught.
The league has somehow managed to brush off its mounting problems, and meanwhile critics, experts and members of the media seem content to focus their contempt and outrage on baseball, cycling and track and field.
The NFL brags about how less than 1 percent of its players get busted, but that doesn't mean that less than 1 percent are using. It'd be stupid to think this was the case. The NFL sees its players getting bigger - more than 400 in camps topped 300 pounds this year - and reacts with an aw-shucks grin, as though the buffet table is the biggest evil in pro football.
The NFL should stop looking for excuses for why these Panthers weren't caught and start seriously searching for answers. No one outside the league offices seriously thinks that Carolina is a renegade operation that encourages cheaters while 31 other teams are busy fitting their players for angel wings.
The integrity of the No. 1 sporting event in the world was compromised, and no one is giving it a second thought. Is it because we just assume the oversized Sunday monsters are using illegal drugs? Would raising a stink be akin to walking out of a Quentin Tarantino movie and lamenting the naughty language?
Or do we just not care?
For a couple of years, you didn't hear about baseball's faulty testing policy without also hearing about the merits of the NFL's program: an annual test for all players plus seven random tests each week for each team. In total, the NFL conducts 9,000 tests a year and spends $10 million on steroid testing and education.
But we're now learning the plan isn't as comprehensive as advertised, and it's completely hypocritical that Congress, the president, sporting officials and members of the media would go out of their way to scold baseball and be willing to turn a blind eye to football's indiscretions.
So the Panthers' scandal didn't send shock waves through the league; the NFL should count its blessings and at the least view the recent headlines as a warning. Sooner or later, football is going to have its Barry Bonds. Rather than continuing to pretend that all is bright and sunny, league officials should learn from baseball's missteps and deal with its problem before it grows to unmanageable proportions.