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The NFL, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, And What It Could Learn From MLB

A look at the NFL's current performance enhancing drug policy while seeing what the league could learn from the way MLB has handled its PED issues.

Jonathan Daniel

Last week, the world yielded a collective sigh of anguish after seeing (again) that people do indeed still take performance enhancing drugs ("PEDs") in baseball. Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta, and everyone's favorite third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, along with a group of other players, were suspended 50 games for being linked to receiving PEDs of some sort from the MIami Biogenesis clinic. You could field a solid team from the 15 players who were mentioned, a team that could take two out of three from the Astros. None of the players tested positive for any illegal drug, but were suspended because of their association with the clinic.

Most players who get caught in connection with PEDs claim to have done so because of some type injury they tried to rush back from.  The case this time was no different.

Nelson Cruz allegedly took PEDs because of a gastrointestinal illness that caused him to lose 40 lbs. during the winter; he took the drugs to put the weight back on.  Of course, he could have just spent some time on the DL and slowly worked himself back into game shape.

Everth Cabera let tears tumble down his Desi Arnazian face as the pain became too unbearable in his heart. He admitted he turned to PEDs because of an injury. His reasoning was that his shoulder was 50% and the Cactus League was calling his name. It's cool though.  He never went looking for the drugs; the drugs just came to him.

Alex Rodriguez presumably did it in 2002 because the pressure of his $252 million Rangers-killing deal had on his soul.  He then allegedly did it again because either (a) his hip dissolved like Colby Lewis' or (b) he decided to fight Father Time and his age curve by rubbing creams in the hope he'd his power back.  A-Rod is the only player who has appealed his punishment, which will comically allow him to play baseball while being swarmed with boos and mean signs until he has to serve his 211 game suspension.

Other players just decided to dodge questions or combat the lie with more lies until the evidence mounted up like a pile of Scrooge McDuck's gold coins.

Fransisco Cervelli said he left without pills in his hand.

Jesus Montero denied, denied, denied until he couldn't anymore and eventually swallowed his punishment.

Regardless of what, when, where, why and who they purchased from, the song remains the same. Not one of them could actually come out and say, "Yeah I devoured pills, shot up bull shark testosterone and rubbed creams. I'm only a marginal player trying to crack the big leagues.  I want to dip a toe into the fame of the major leagues.  I did it to raise my fastball from 92 mph to 95 mph and get out of the purgatory that AAA baseball can be." Instead, every one of them covered their guilt by either claiming it was because of injury rehab or they took something they did not know was illegal. I've seen children more truthful and actually give a real apology.  "Yes, I'm sorry. I did make Johnny eat the white dog poop."

Most probably believe that this is another dark day for baseball. A homage to the roid-raging home run clobbering 105 mph fastball throwing behemoths of the 90s who brought excitement and hundreds of millions of dollars back to baseball. However, the opposite holds true.

Major League Baseball is the only league in the four major American sports actually taking a proactive approach to catch and punish the rats who take the cheese. They actually fight this losing battle where the rules are rigged. Where scientists can create new drugs at the flick of a wand or block drug tests with ease. It is like the new synthetic marijuana fad, where once something becomes illegal they just change the formula ever so slightly to the point that it becomes legal again. Despite the lack of character in some of their employees and their recurring problems that continue to plague the game, MLB actually does something about the problem and attempts to take on the uphill battle.

Back in 1998, MLB was exploding in popularity.  The 1994 strike had badly wounded the game, but the ease with which home runs came, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's chase for immortality, and Sports Illustrated covers like this saw a surge of interest in baseball. The fans poured in to witness the spectacle of men the size of Belgium Blue Cows play a game that resembled baseball, but was not actually baseball. It was as if everyone paid to see a game of artificial Ken Griffey, Jr. Baseball and not reality. The fun continued as the steroids molded their bodies like polygons until the curtain finally lifted and the zipper was finally revealed on the monster's back. The public had been duped, the sanctity of the game was over and sportswriters wet their pants, vowing revenge by not enshrining them in Cooperstown.

In 2013, the NFL is now one of the supreme rulers of our short attention spans.  Consequently, it is now in the same spot that MLB was in 14 years ago. And just like the MLB, the NFL is ignoring the warning signs right in front of them. Their eyes are transfixed on the money flowing in.  They're turning their back to the room next to them being consumed by flames. Just look at the nonsense that is the NFL's current performance enhancing drug policy. It is splotched with holes as big as the craters that mar the surface of Mercury.

Every player is tested at different times in their career. They are tested during the NFL Combine, before they sign a contract with a different team, and then can be tested if there is a contract provision after agreement between the player and the team. During the season, every player is tested at least once; that occurs during the preseason. And players can be tested during the offseason at the discretion of an independent administrator. Players with past problems and failed tests can be tested on reasonable cause by the independent administrator. Seems reasonable, right?

Now we can break it down into probabilities. Including the practice squad and reserve list, their are about 65 players per team. So each week, there is a 15.3% chance to get tested. As a result, every player should be tested an average amount of 2.6 times a year, which equals to being tested once every 6.53 weeks, or once every 45 days. In other words, every time a player gets tested, he has about six free weeks to do as he pleases. Just about every drug on the market is out of a player's system during the average time frame between tests under the current testing procedures.

On top of that, the NFL doesn't conduct blood testing, so the new PED sitting at the throne, Human Growth Hormone, can be taken without punishment.  It's undetectable under the current urine-only format. This would be like having a homicide case where the detectives have a colossal amount of DNA evidence, but are not allowed to use it against the culprit because Congress passed a law after successful criminal lobbying.

The fun never stops.  This is straight from the league's PED policy:

A. Scope
The confidentiality of players’ medical conditions and test results will be protected to the
maximum extent possible, recognizing that players who are disciplined for violating this
Policy will come to the attention of and be reported to the public and the media.
B. Discipline for Breach of Confidentiality
Any Club or Club employee that publicly divulges, directly or indirectly, information
concerning positive tests or other violations of this Policy (including numerical
summaries or specific names of persons) or otherwise breaches the confidentiality
provisions of this Policy is subject to a fine of up to $500,000 by the Commissioner.

Players don't have to even disclose what they tested positive for!  That is presumably why so many players have been banned for games for using Adderall (listed as a banned stimulant). Some may take the drug to increase focus during a game, but most see they have four hours to take a drug test, know they are going to fail and then take an Adderall right before so they can fail for something less heinous. Just look at Ravens DB Asa Jackson. He has tested positive for the ADHD cure all twice in the last year when all he needed was a note from his doctor to take the pill. I really hope there are not people on this planet that insensate and unintelligent. I could talk to my doctor, give a nice monologue about how I'm having trouble paying attention to my work, and five minuets later, I could be laughing my way to the Walgreens to fill a prescription. Instead of just admitting to what is going on, Jackson claims he lost $225,000.00 this year because he forgot to fill in his prescription twice in the last year. Yeah, right.

Since 2011, 22 out of the 43 players suspended didn't admit to what drug they took to lead to a failed test or admitted they took Adderall or created a phony excuse like, "I took an unprescribed medication" or "I worked out too much."  Players that include Brandon Bolden, Bruce Irvin, Richard Sherman, Aqib Talib, Joe Haden, John Moffitt, Cedric Griffin, and numerous other players who range from decent to never playing a snap on Sunday.

The NFL's PED program is a failure because it does not dissuade players from participating in the action. They can lie about what they fail for.  They know the exact time tables during which they will be tested.  They are not tested enough to change player's behavior.  They can still take drugs the NFL does not allow because the NFL doesn't do blood tests, despite many of their best players openly stating they want blood testing. It is a perfect storm of asymmetric information. Players can do whatever they want, with the only punishment being the rare chance they have to pee in the cup at the wrong time and lose four gamechecks.

However, heaven forbid if you take an action that affects the image of the NFL. The only thing Roger Goodell has done right is give suspensions to Pacman Jones and Ben Roethlisberger for their actions. He rightly took a hard stand on gun problems, sexual misconduct, and other various criminal violations. The problem is that Goodell has failed to take a stand on issues that affect the actual game, but instead has focused on what people think or say about the game. Every situation that has affected actual on-field play that has required action has been ignored and left to gather mold. The lockout, referees incapable of calling a middle school football game, talks of an 18 game season when say they care about player safety, and now the lack of a competent PED policy since the last CBA.  The league is stuck looking in the mirror and worrying about how it is perceived rather than trying to fix the real issues crippling its insides.

The problem won't be the PEDs ruining the "sanctity of the game."  Any ruination will stem from the hits, injuries, continued concussion damage, and even the specter of an on-field death as the players keep getting bigger/faster/stronger until their biceps explode. As the problems continue to mount, the league will have to radically change things. The game we love won't be the same.  It will be ruined by rules like no kickoff returns (which the NFL could be using the Pro Bowl to experiment with), no tackling wide receivers in the middle of the field, no cut blocks, no double team blocks. and other obtrusive changes. The game will turn into intramural flag football because they failed to do something now.

If I unexpectedly morphed into Goodell Freaky Friday style, the first thing I would do would be to meet with the union and make the PED policy more stringent by adding the following to the current policy: blood testing, continuing to randomly test players throughout the season but testing at least 7 times a year (which would decrease the lull time between tests from 45 days to 17), and making every player take a drug test weekly during the postseason.

In 2003, I sat in the car looking up at my Dad listening to the all-hitting, no-pitching Texas Rangers on the radio. It was a team transitioning from the legends of Pudge and Greer into the mediocre 81-81 teams of the mid 2000s, where we would ponder how awesome it would be if we had a #2 pitcher better than Chan Ho Park. We sat listening and talking amongst ourselves as the surroundings changed, the car wondrously weaving through the streets of San Antonio en route to picking up Dad's paycheck. As the game mundanely went on, something extraordinary happened.  Rafael Palmeiro knocked home run number 500 off of David Elder. We hollered and high-fived as Palmeiro trotted the base paths four hours north of us, his mustache bristling above his smug smirk of achievement.

Two years later, Jose Canseco claimed that he and Palmeiro shared more than just lockers--needles as well. Two more  years later, with his finger wagging, Palmeiro famously stated, "Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids, period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never." Then a few months later, he tested positive for a steroid which he still claimed he did not use, claiming it was B12 shots he was injected with. He then served his ten day suspension and continued to play baseball until the end of 2005, when every team refused to sign him.

I'm not one of those gobs of people who claim my memory is ruined or tainted by some man I enjoyed watching play ball because he used roids while MLB looked away. The memory is still up there, the same it has been, except now it's one of those fogs of the past where adults were doing or talking about something you don't understand until years later when you have an epiphany or learn new knowledge and exclaim,"Oh, that's what was really going on!" The difference this time is that everyone was the child in that scenario.

Now we are mere weeks away from the upcoming football season. A season full of twists and turns, classic games, victories and defeats that we can not possibly fathom. I just hope the times of this year and years past don't turn into Palmeiro's 500th home run. A time where we look back and realize we were the children, feeling stupid for not realizing what was occurring when all the signs were all there.

Despite my pessimism, I dearly hope the game we love continues to stay the same while innovating for the better.  Some type of action needs to be taken now, instead of later when it is too late. The NFL needs to proactively go after the cheaters like MLB does before the game turns into a weird stranger we barely recognize. Let's hope all good things stay the same and the league attempts to fix the root cause before football turns into something completely different.