(Here is today’s Mariners minor-league report).
It’s long fascinated me to watch the difference in how performance-enhancing drugs in baseball and football are viewed by fans. In baseball, of course, it came to define a whole era — the steroids era. It was a crisis that shook the sport to its core, led to scorn from fans, took the luster away from vaunted records, tainted almost everyone who played in that era, either by innuendo or guilt by association, led to sweeping changes in policy, kept superstars out of the Hall of Fame, and continues to haunt the game to this day.
Football, by comparison, seems to have gotten a relatively free ride, though my gut, and common sense, tells me that the NFL had, and has, just as big a PED problem as MLB. We’re always hearing about the super-human feats of football players — huge men running amazing speeds and combining that with mind-boggling strength. And returning from major injuries with seemingly superhuman recuperative powers, and then performing better than ever. When baseball players appeared to be superhuman, the media and league were (rightly) lambasted for being either naive or complicit in looking the other way.
This comes to mind, of course, because of the current focus on the Seahawks for their rash of PED violations, most recently the suspension of defensive end Bruce Irvin. The Hawks are suffering some embarrassment and scrutiny, but to me — and I might be wrong – it doesn’t seem to even be as much of a backlash as when the Mariners, in 2005, had eight minor-league players test positive for PEDs. The majority of the fan response I’ve been hearing and reading seems to be along the line of, that was really stupid of Irvin to jeopardize the Seahawks chances of winning the Super Bowl by getting caught; not that the Seahawks have a culture of cheating that needs to be eradicated — as I’m certain would be the case if one MLB team had five players suspended in such a short period of time. There is some of that, but I just don’t get the same sense of moral outrage that comes with baseball violations.
Maybe it’s the difference between Adderall, an amphetamine, and steroids. But not even getting into the question of steroid or HGH use in the NFL, I think it must be reiterated that Adderall is indisputably a performance-enhancing drug, contrary to what some people seem to think. I wrote about this last year when the news broke about Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner of the Seahawks facing suspension for allegedly using Adderall (remember, the NFL does not comment on suspensions; any leak of the drug for which a player has been busted comes from elsewhere; for the record, Sherman was cleared on appeal because of a chain of custody error). Dr. Gary Wadler, past chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List Committee, called Adderall “one of the quintessential performance-enhancing drugs. There’s no question it’s a performance-enhancing drug.”
When I talked to Wadler on the phone, he listed off the benefits of Adderall to an athlete.
“It masks fatigue, masks pain, increases arousal — like being in The Zone,” begins Wadler, currently an associate professor of medicine at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. “It increases alertness, aggressiveness, attention and concentration. It improves reaction time, especially when fatigued. Some think it enhances hand-eye coordination. Some believe it increases the mental aspects of performance.”
So why does the NFL not have the same PED stigma as MLB? I have a couple of theories:
One is that MLB is a sport built around statistics, and the continuity of those statistics from generation to generation. Every player — pitcher or hitter — has a set of numbers associated with him that resonates with meaning, both in the context of the modern game, and in a historical context. The rise of steroids was perceived to have played havoc with that inter-generational connectedness, to the point of rendering meaningless some of the most glamorous records in all of sports — namely, the single-season and career home run records. There was a steep price to be paid for that, one that continues to be extracted. NFL records are not nearly so sacred, and a good portion of players don’t have much of a statistical resume that is meaningful in any historical context. Offensive lineman block. Defensive linemen rush and tackle. It’s hard to put that in any context.
Secondly, NFL football is a sport predicated on brute strength and violent collisions, more of a gladiator-type event, and in such a light I just don’t think there’s as much of a stigma against PEDs. If anything, I sense that they tend to be viewed by fans as almost necessary to survive in this brutal environment. But there should be concern, because it’s tied into the biggest crisis the NFL has maybe ever faced — the rise of concussions and brain injuries and the perception that the sport is reaching a point where it is becoming unsafe for participants. To the extent that PEDs are making players bigger, stronger and faster, it is also making it more dangerous.
If you ask most fans which sport has a PED problem, they would probably say baseball — despite MLB repeatedly tightening its drug-testing policy to an extent that it is widely viewed now as superior to the NFL’s (which still doesn’t do a blood test for HGH, as baseball now does). But the reality facing baseball is that perception may never change.