Completed pass

Elusive football lets baseball take the steroid hit

The Mitchell Report / How Sports Differ

December 15, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

During the news conference Thursday in which former Sen. George Mitchell unveiled his 409-page report on baseball's performance-enhancement scandal, I kept waiting for him to announce that he had been hired by the NFL to perform a similar investigation to root out the cheaters in America's most popular television sport.

Stop laughing.

Of course I'm kidding.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would sooner make "Pacman" Jones the league's head of security than let some politician poke around in his basement, especially with Major League Baseball so willing to take the public relations hit for everybody.

That might be an outrage if anybody cared, but - for some strange reason - football has largely gotten a pass when it comes to culpability for the steroid epidemic in professional sports.

Want proof?

Just turn on the television and watch that breathtaking Nike commercial featuring San Diego Chargers (and former University of Maryland) star Shawne Merriman, who - you might recall - was suspended for four games last year for violating the league's policy against anabolic steroids and related substances.

Merriman looks as if he's on his way to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, even though his career bears the same steroid taint that probably will prevent soiled baseball star Rafael Palmeiro from getting anywhere close to Cooperstown.

Merriman made the Pro Bowl after serving his suspension during the 2006 season and made seven different All-Pro teams. Palmeiro walked away from the game in disgrace soon after serving his 10-day suspension for testing positive for the banned steroid stanozolol late in the 2005 season, even though he steadfastly denied he intentionally ingested any illegal substance.

(Nobody bought his excuses at the time, but you have to admit the whole Miguel Tejada/tainted B-12 thing seems a little more plausible now that Tejada has been named in the Mitchell Report.)

Keep in mind that there were rumors of steroid abuse in football long before baseball players got into this dirty business, and the NFL was testing for steroids as far back as 1987. Maybe the fact that football addressed the problem more decisively has earned it a little more slack from the public, but there clearly is a double standard at work.

There are all sorts of reasons fans hold football to a lower standard, starting with baseball's status as the supposed national pastime. Baseball has long wrapped itself in the flag and marketed itself as the most wholesome of the major American professional sports, which might explain why commissioner Bud Selig felt compelled to commission what amounts to a public confession for the way the sport's record book has been corrupted during the past two decades.

The NFL, though fiercely protective of its image for commercial reasons, clearly does not feel the same obligation, and no one seems to be clamoring for the sport to come clean.

Remember that packed congressional hearing room on March 17, 2005? Remember the drama as Mark McGwire squirmed in his XXL suit and Sammy Sosa forgot how to speak English?

Bet a lot of people don't even recall there was a similar congressional hearing on steroid abuse in football six weeks later, featuring then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, union chief Gene Upshaw and former NFL player Steve Courson. It took place in front of dozens of empty seats, and only one congressman was present when Courson testified that his steroid abuse might have contributed to a serious heart condition.

For some reason, we treat baseball players like knights and football players like gladiators, which might not be fair but isn't entirely illogical. The average sports fan realizes how much physical abuse football players accept to entertain us and might be more forgiving of their attempts to bulk up for the battle.

There's also the obvious impact of the steroid era on baseball's statistical body. If the same thing has happened in football, it's barely noticeable and, well, there's a huge segment of the football public that wouldn't notice anyway.

"In baseball, they care about the record book," a friend of mine said casually when I mentioned the double standard yesterday. "In football, all they care about is the point spread."

I'm not that cynical, but I do think the NFL has exploited public apathy about steroids much better than Major League Baseball.

Just another reason George Mitchell won't be getting a call from Roger Goodell anytime soon.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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