In hindsight, all those red herrings seem so silly. Remember those?
The baseballs were being wound tighter.
The ballparks were getting smaller.
Major League pitching had been diluted by expansion, shifting the balance of power to hitters.
In the late 1990s, home runs in baseball skyrocketed, and people wondered why. Hypotheses abounded. But the main reason — use of performance enhancing drugs had become rampant — went largely unexplored.
We would never be so naïve again, we all said. Never would we be so distracted by ancillary debate that we would miss something so obvious.
Except that’s exactly what’s happening. Right now.
NFL training camps are underway, and one of the overriding themes continues to be player safety.
The league has mandated knee and thigh pads for the first time this season. The competition committee has adopted a new rule banning ball-carriers from lowering their heads when approaching defenders in an attempt to break tackles. This season’s Pro Bowl will not have kickoffs, another step toward minimizing violent collisions in the game. Seeing a kick return in a regular-season game already is a rarity, given previous tweaks to the bylaws.
Rules changes and equipment mandates make for good surface-skimming, “Pardon the Interruption”-style debate. Nobody’s denying there can be some safety benefits to these moves, but they’re the football equivalent of moving the fences back at the baseball park.
The real reason collisions are so destructive, the real reason pro football is more dangerous than ever, is because the players are doped-up superhumans.
The NFL, unlike baseball or the Olympics, does not test for human growth hormone. And given what we know about athletes and their lust for an edge, it’s easy to assume that most NFL players are using.
That means they’re bigger, faster, stronger than they ought to be … and each one of their hits inflicts that much more damage than it otherwise would.
In May, an anonymous NFC starter told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tyler Dunne that HGH use in the NFL is “like clockwork these days. Not tested and it’s easy to get.”
We figured that, right? No huge news there. But here was the interesting part: The player didn’t think that was a problem.
“I say, just let guys do it,” the player said of taking HGH. “This is our career. We’re putting on for fans. I say … HGH isn’t anything. I say, do it. … You’re going to get hit hard regardless whether you’re clean or not clean. It’s just a matter of how hard you get hit.”
That last sentence ought to matter to the NFL. A lot.
But you can see what the league is up against, if that player’s laissez-faire stance is representative of the NFL Players Association’s. The union has blocked the NFL’s previous attempts to implement HGH testing, citing issues with the testing process. Somehow, these issues aren’t a problem for baseball, skiing, track and field, etc. — you know, those sports where the consequences of not having a test would be considerably lighter, the ones where people don’t continuously run into each other at high speeds.
The truth is, most NFL players don’t want a test for the same reasons a lot of them don’t want knee pads: They like the status quo. They’re making millions. Fans are in love with their game, and with them. Drugs make them better athletes.
Not only that, but drugs also help them recover from injuries more quickly. In a sport where injuries happen and guaranteed contracts do not, HGH can go a long way toward helping you keep your job.
The argument that drug testing is futile because enterprising, financially resourceful cheaters will always be ahead of the test? That’s weak. Ask Alex Rodriguez how well that’s worked out. And then ask him why he (and others) allegedly sought an edge from some Biogenesis anti-aging clinic when he could have just quietly acquired some HGH and used it.
Ah, that’s right. He couldn’t. Because baseball tests for that.
If the NFL is serious about player safety, the league will take every step necessary to do the same. Until then, spare us the lecture on the benefits of thigh pads.