Likes of Merriman just a speck in cleaner NFL

October 24, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

One by one, the NFL has cleaned up the league as far as anabolic steroids. The league will never be totally free of them or other performance-enhancing drugs, but at least it has a policy in place that has caused fear among players since 1990.

There are still going to be isolated cases, such as the one coming out of San Diego yesterday involving outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, but the problem is nowhere near as severe as it was in the 1970s and '80s. Actually, you have to be either terribly naive, incredibly stupid or extremely expert in chemistry to try to circumvent the policy.

Which is Merriman? No one knows yet.

According to reports, the former University of Maryland star will be suspended four games for steroid use. It comes one week after it was announced that two other players - Atlanta Falcons guard Matt Lehr and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Shaun Rogers - were suspended for violating the substance-abuse policy, according to ESPN.com.

The NFL used to have the same problem as Major League Baseball. Almost 30 years ago, cases of steroid abuse involving players such as Lyle Alzado and Steve Courson kept popping up much as it is today with baseball's Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds. Even though Merriman is a high-profile athlete, there won't be any witch hunts, because these types of incidents have become isolated.

Recent players fear the NFL's steroids policy because it has more rigid rules and stricter tests than Homeland Security.

"Maybe about 20 years ago, the numbers were high as far as players using steroids," a former Cleveland Browns player said. "I would say it's now under 10 percent or less using steroids or similar-type drugs. These guys don't mess around. To test positive could cost you a lot financially. I don't see why guys mess around with this stuff, because they have so much to lose."

They also have so much to gain. Professional athletes are always looking for an edge, and football players are no different. There are few sports so physically demanding, yet so damaging to the body. Pro scouts scour the country looking for the next great player, the one who can bench-press more than 500 pounds, run the 40-yard dash in 4.2 seconds and vertical-leap out of M&T Bank Stadium. The motto of faster, higher, stronger applies just as much to NFL players as Olympians.

There's also enormous pressure on veterans to keep their jobs and also to recover quickly from injuries.

Only Merriman knows why he might have become involved, but he has a lot to lose. He was on the verge of becoming the NFL's most dominant defensive player, often being mentioned in the same breath with fellow linebackers Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher.

A year ago, he was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was second on the team this season in sacks with 5.5. But now, a four-game suspension would cost Merriman $72,941 in salary. He also might lose endorsements and commercials, and his absence could eventually cost the Chargers a playoff appearance.

But these are the kinds of stories that have a lot of players thinking twice before taking performance-enhancing drugs. Don't confuse this procedure with the league's policy on substance and alcohol abuse. That's an absolute joke, because a player is tested only once a year during training camp if he hasn't previously tested positive.

But with steroids and other substances that fall under the same umbrella, there are random tests throughout the year. One former player said he was tested 10 times during a season even though he never tested positive.

There are stories of the NFL's sending drug enforcement agents to test players in other countries while they were vacationing. Another player took his test on a boat after agents came aboard. A lot of times, there is no advance notice of the test. The agents could show up after practice or after a game. He could show up at your house or at your kid's school.

It can be embarrassing, but the NFL doesn't care. It's a steroids beat-down.

First-time offenders get suspended four games. A second positive test is eight games, and a third is a one-year suspension. The penalties aren't quite as stiff as those for Olympic athletes, who get banned from two years of competition for a first-time offense, but that's not needed in the NFL.

The players have gotten the message. There will always be isolated cases. In the ever-changing world of doping, chemists are creating masking agents faster than they are developing testing procedures. In other words, the bad guys are ahead of the good guys. You can buy some masking agents at your local nutrition store that can cleanse your system of most drugs within 24 hours.

It's a big-money racket, but football is a big-money game. For years, the NFL looked the other way, and it could do that now. Never has the game been faster or bigger, because the league promotes itself so well. Yet within the past 16 years, the league has gotten tough on steroids. It's a shame that another young player like Merriman might have to learn a tough lesson, but it's probably better to learn one now than 20 or 30 years later.

A problem that once was ignored by the league has become totally under control.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

Go to www.baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral for Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog.

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