The NFL’s Steroid Moment

Baseball had steroids.

In 1990, rumors started swirling that players were “juiced,” using steroids, synthetic steroid derivatives, and human growth hormone (HGH).  The result: greatly increased muscle mass, resulting in quicker reaction time and stronger swings for hitters. It also reduced injuries among players, which decreased the chances players from AAA farm teams would be called up to the Big Leagues. In short, it substantially perverted the game and blew the mainstay of professional baseball – historical statistics…out of the water.

By 2000, the rumors were significant enough to have MLB ban steroids and their synthetic derivatives. In 2004, MLB began testing players, and between 5-7% failed their drug tests. The results were kept secret, and the hush surrounding the presence of juiced players made the intensity of the investigations more acute. By 2006, rumors had become reality, with the leaks of various investigations and Jose Canseco’s tell-all book . Dozens of high-profile players were now publicly suspected of being juiced, and the stain of the steroid era led MLB Commissioner Selig to appoint former Senator George Mitchell to lead a wide-ranging investigation.

In 2007, the Mitchell Report was issued (having leaked all over the internet in December of 2006), and it blew the lid off the presence of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in professional baseball. With the issuance of the report and the various investigations thereafter, 129 professional baseball players have been implicated, admitted use, or been suspended for using various banned substances.

It took MLB almost a decade to deal with the steroid stain, and it did so only after public outcry and a direct threat to its financial powerhouse status. The statistics of baseball (ERA, home runs, OBP, RISP) have settled down and regained consistency. Fan interest is strong, and once again, fathers like me can point their sons to players who truly serve as role models.

The NFL has concussions and suicides.

The NFL has its own issues with PEDs. Within the player ranks, the term “NFL” is laughed off as an acronym for “Narcotics For Life.” That being said,  the NFL has one of the strictest policies relating to PEDs in professional sports and it has been brutal in its enforcement.

But the NFL was rocked again last week by the suicide of a well-regarded former player, Junior Seau. His suicide, the 12th in the last 25 years, and the second within a span of two weeks, is bringing searing attention to the long-standing issue of concussions in professional football.

The NFL should be very concerned about the convergence of several data points. First, the long-standing idea that a player should “play through the fog” or “play hurt”. Second, issues like the New Orleans Saints “bounty” program. Third, the causes of an increase in the rate of concussions and the long-term effect of those injuries. And most alarming, the spate of former player suicides.

To an average football fan, there is a link between football players being paid bounties to be even more violent and intentionally cause injuries…being coached to play hurt…and the long-term effects on those players after they leave the game. This link becomes even clearer when some of those former players commit suicide in ways that preserve their brains for post-autopsy scientific study.

Reaching the pinnacle of a professional sport, especially football, is an amazing accomplishment for an athlete. It’s the result of thousands of hours of practice and countless sacrifices. For that accomplishment, they are paid handsomely and revered by millions. When they leave the game, they are quickly forgotten and moved aside for the next superstar.

We treat our returning soldiers for the long-term effects of combat. We help them make the transition back to civilian life, far from the dangers of the battlefield. The NFL should do no less for its warriors. Once off the main stage of Sunday afternoon, it should help former players adjust back to a more normal lifestyle.

There can be no louder clarion call than that of a former player who has lived with the long-term effects of repeatedly smashing his helmeted brain into an opponent’s helmeted brain. When that player succumbs to the effects of his long-masked injury, and preserves his brain to be studied, the NFL ought to stop looking the other way and stop making excuses. It should stop dead in its tracks on proposing an even longer season for its players.

MLB could have learned a lesson or two from the NFL in how to control substance abuse. Let’s hope the NFL learns a lesson from MLB…and doesn’t take a decade or more to clean up its proverbial locker room.

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