Somewhat shockingly, given that the whole steroid thing (and, more precisely, the injury risk associated with overuse) was one of my reasons against drafting Brian Cushing, I have made it a point not to chime in on the whole thing. I assumed that the internets would be flooded with bloggers who were suddenly steroid experts, and I didn't want to be part of that group.
That said, it dawned on me yesterday that I probably have more experience with steroids than 99% of the NFL bloggers out there (and probably 75% of the readers).1 So I figured, hell, if people with far less experience can chime in, there's no reason I shouldn't; unlike so many blog-writing Donnies, I am not out of my element, and I actually have a frame of reference.
Long story short, my take on the whole thing is this: The main argument of the "strip his award" crowd, that a player shouldn't be allowed to win if he takes steroids during the season, doesn't hold water. I'll explain why after the jump.
As my buddy, a Rams fan who thinks James Laurinaitis should have won, put it on Facebook yesterday:
No matter how many NFLers actually use performance-enhancers (which I'm guessing is easily 2/3 of the league), if you're stupid enough to get caught, you deserve the fallout. And if you get caught and fail a test in any given season, you should never, ever be able to win an award that year. Not THAT year. [...] Fill me in if I'm missing the details, but they busted him in Sept., at that point he should've been ineligible for any honors that year. True, the rules don't specifically say that, but I think it's fairly reasonable to imply that that should be the case, isn't it?
Now, (a) I don't think it's reasonable to imply some arbitrary rule after the fact, but, more importantly, (b) to the extent we know anything about this case, it is that all of the evidence points to Cushing not using steroids during the 2009 season.
Here's what I mean: Steroids, generally speaking, are either taken orally or by injection. The main reason that people tend to inject is that oral steroids tend to have much greater side effects, especially in terms of the toll they take on your liver/kidneys. Injected steroids also tend to be more user-friendly in that a person has to take the oral steroids daily, which can be tedious during a typical 12-week cycle, but he generally only has to "pin" every few days. (Note: this is a broad generalization)
However, the upside to oral steroids, if one is in a profession where such things are tested for, is that they have a much shorter half-life than injected steroids. The difference between oral and injected in terms of how long the steroids stay in your system (and are therefore detectable) can be pretty huge. The vast majority of oral steroids are undetectable in 3-4 weeks, depending on your metabolism. Injected steroids, on the other hand, normally remain in your system from three to six months (or longer, depending on the type). I've even heard, but have never verified, that some injected versions remain detectable for as long as 18 months. But, generally, we are talking about a most-common scenario of the difference being between three weeks and three months for oral v. injected.
[Side note: In my experience, even people who start on oral steroids only tend to switch to injections if they use long enough. Between the side effects of the orals and the ease of the injectables, that kind of makes sense.]
So, now that we all have a little context, let's look at this logically. For purposes of this exercise, assume that Cushing was using.
- The regular season started September 13, 2009.
- There was one preseason September game on 9/4/09.
- hCG is normally used for 3-4 weeks following a steroid cycle as part of a user's post-cycle therapy, and hCG does not mask the presence of steroids in a person's system.2
- hCG generally takes 5-7 days to leave your system (for testing purposes) after ceasing use of it.
- To my knowledge, we don't have an exact date of the failed test, but we do know it was "in September."
- So, if Cushing was still testing positive for the hCG, but did not have any steroid in his system, we are looking at a window where, most likely, the steroid was last taken more than three weeks prior. (i.e., three weeks to leave the system, user either on week four of PCT or finished PCT less than a week before being tested)
- Given that window, the shortest time period we're looking at is about 22 days.
- Even if he were tested on the last day of September, 22 days prior to that puts his last use on September 8 --- five days before the season started.
Point being this: the cry that an award should be retroactively stripped if a player tests positive for a PED during the season is inapplicable inasmuch as (a) Cushing did not test positive for a PED at all, and (b) the timeline of what we do know makes it almost certain that he did not take any PEDs during the regular season.
What's more, all of this assumes oral steroid use with hCG taken immediately upon cessation of the cycle. If there were gaps in time between the cycle and the PCT, or if Cushing's metabolism was not "normal" in terms of breaking down the by-products of any of the chemicals, the timeline could stretch back even further.
Does all of this "prove" that he didn't take steroids during the season? No. As with anything, there are exceptions to some of the above generalizations. However, we are talking about a situation where he got banned for taking a drug that is banned solely because of its general association with PEDs. Generalizations are all we have here. In that situation, I think that taking the average timeline for all of this stuff is far more rational and far more likely to be correct than the conclusion-jumping, screaming, and baseless ranting of those who would have Cushing pilloried, stripped of every award, skinned alive, and set ablaze at the 50-yard line.
Also, to those who would say "well he still could have used during the preseason!?!?!?OMG!!one!!!," I say "so what?" The pre-season is not the regular season. If your argument is that his stats were inflated because of PED use (of which you still have no proof, by the way), then we are necessarily looking at the regular season. He didn't win the DROY because of his play during the preseason, none of those stats carried forward, etc. The DROY is based on the regular season only, so any talk of an inane retroactive punishment should be similarly limited.
1 Background: a family member used steroids during his last two years of high school, two good friends used during college, and I have talked to all three of them about it at length at one time or another. On top of that, I worked in a gym for nearly two years during college, and I had more than a few conversations about steroids with some of the regulars who were using. Does this make me an expert? Of course not. But in internet blogger terms, it makes me a friggin' oracle compared to most of them.
2 I want to get one semantic thing out of the way. I read a couple places yesterday that hCG is "not a masking agent." I understand the point of Mark Schlereth, et al, that hCG would not hide steroids if they were in your system. That said, one of the key markers that steroid testers look for when trying to detect if someone was using steroids is a low testosterone level. hCG is used to return testosterone production to normal after a cycle and, in effect, hides --- or masks --- the low level that would have given the prior use away. So while it might not mask the steroids directly, it does mask the trail they leave behind. But that's neither here nor there, I guess.