NFL, fans care more about ends than means

November 05, 2006|By RICK MAESE

If Shawne Merriman wants to play football today, he'd better have a video-game controller nearby. The only way he'll need a helmet is if he gets the urge to take an afternoon bicycle ride down by the beach. Count him as the only man in America upset because he's not allowed to work Sundays this month.

Merriman, the former University of Maryland standout who quickly blossomed into one of the NFL's brightest young defensive stars, hasn't admitted to knowingly taking a banned substance, but last week he dropped his appeal of the NFL's four-game suspension. Now, nearly two weeks removed from news that he tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance, we're finally starting to gain a bit of clarity.

We can now attach meaning to what should have been the NFL's steroids tsunami - but was instead just a SportsCenter hiccup, carrying about as much buzz as the coffeepot at a Mormon picnic.

Count me as one of the stunned members of the media who couldn't figure out why baseball players must face our collective denigration whenever they break drug rules, yet when a football player gets popped, fans and commentators seem more concerned with how the news might affect the depth charts. It didn't make sense, and it didn't seem particularly fair. But that's because I was mistaking a horse for a cart.

Football - and any "controversy" we want to assign to America's most popular sport - can't possibly follow baseball's lead. We already read and reacted to the story of steroids and sport back when it was just in outline form, back when the NFL gave us a sneak peek at the rough draft in the 1970s and '80s.

I expected football fans last month to react to steroids the same way baseball fans have in recent years. But football fans had already done that. They were forced to search their souls years earlier - and they all came to the same conclusion. Barely even acknowledging the question, football fans gave their answer. It was never a red- or blue-pill dilemma: NFL players swallowed them both, and fans, by continuing to support football and helping it grow it into the beast it is now, essentially told the league and its players that they don't really care:

Don't tell us how you get bigger, just get bigger.

Don't tell us what it takes to win, just win.

And so, while baseball players were quietly dipping their toes into the shallow end of the drug pool a decade ago, the NFL was doing tricks off the high-dive, much to the delight of the cheering masses. That's precisely why the recent news of Merriman's positive drug test moved us about as much as a "very special episode" of Blossom. Whether we acknowledged it or not, we stopped believing in these gridiron gods long ago. You'd say to your buddy in amazement, "Wow, too good to be true," and you both knew exactly why - because it was too good to be true.

An ESPN.com poll last month, drawing nearly 25,000 respondents, asked whether evidence of widespread drug use would diminish fan interest in the NFL. Eighty-four percent said either "slightly" or "not at all," and just 16 percent said "significantly."

What do you think those numbers would have been like two decades ago, right before the NFL started testing its players for steroids? Remember, it was a different time. Lyle Alzado didn't share his story until 1991. That's when what many kind of suspected, they suddenly kind of knew. Whatever innocence was spared by television contracts, escalating salaries and ticket-price hikes was washed away.

The NFL continues to boast that its stringent policy scares its players from having thought bubbles with syringes inside. Yet league officials can't even fathom why court records show that seven Carolina Panthers purchased banned substances from a South Carolina doctor for a three-year period and not a single one tested positive on a drug test.

It's time we stop subscribing to this notion that just because a player passes a drug test, he's competing cleanly. Players know how to get around tests.

Do you remember Patrick Arnold? He's the scientist who designed illicit performance-enhancing drugs for the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative.

He recently broke his silence and told Sports Illustrated last month: "From what I know about the NFL, players do a cycle of steroids in the offseason, when the testing is lax, and then they use hGH [human growth hormone] during the season to help retain what they gained."

The NFL doesn't test for hGH; neither does baseball. There is no reliable hGH test on the horizon, which means that for the indefinite future, the door is wide-open for any players to cheat with absolutely no risk of getting caught.

This isn't intended as a scolding for football or baseball officials; rather a notice for fans. The war against steroids in sports will not be won any time soon. Continuing to buy tickets, to purchase merchandise, to spend your time and energy on something that we know to be tainted by illegal activity is, in essence, entering into a complicit contract.

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