Unlike with Major League Baseball, the taint of steroid scandals never seems to stick.
I’m not saying the NFL is squeaky clean. In fact, I suspect far from it despite the low number of positive tests that surface each season.
The NFL, though, has never suffered the kind of prolonged image problems that continue to plague baseball following Alex Rodriguez’s recent admission of use.
Credit that to a BALCO-style cocktail of factors.
First and foremost, the NFL was always far more proactive in trying to address the problem than baseball. This has fostered good will publicly. It took government involvement for baseball to establish a strong drug-testing program in 2005, 16 years after the NFL first began checking players for steroids.
“It’s a great advantage for the NFL that Major League Baseball looks like Inspector Clouseau,” said Dick Pound, the former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Star power is another factor. The biggest NFL names caught for banned substances in the past decade were Shawne Merriman, Bill Romanowski, Rodney Harrison and David Boston. They were good-to-great players but hardly household names. None had the same cache or record-setting legacies as baseball players as Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds.
There also is heavy apathy from NFL fans and media about this issue compared to those in baseball. Consider this: There was far more public outrage generated by Spygate than the 2003 Carolina Panthers team that featured six players prescribed steroids and Human Growth Hormone before playing New England in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Still, just because the NFL has avoided a Mark McGwire-sized scandal doesn’t make the league impervious.
One may be getting ready to surface. Former defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield was sentenced to two years probation Tuesday for lying to prosecutors investigating BALCO, the Northern California lab that created the previously undetectable steroid known as THG. Stubblefield was one of three NFL players who tested positive in 2003. The 11-year veteran received a reduced sentence by giving federal prosecutors the names of NFL players, agents and trainers he suspected of being involved in illegal drug activities.
Obviously, this could expose major loopholes in the NFL’s steroid program.
The league conducts 12,000 random drug tests a year and annually updates its guidelines to account for new developments (three more drugs were added to the banned list of substances in 2008). Roughly a dozen players test positive each season, including some retirees and training-camp cuts whose names aren’t publicly released because they are no longer in the league. The NFL also financially contributes to scientific research aimed at creating HGH testing that can be implemented for players.
Kim Wood — a retired NFL strength coach and co-founder of the Hammer Strength weight-machine company — believes the percentage of players taking “exotic” HGH-like drugs that can’t be detected by the league’s testing has risen in recent years. He said the increase stems from easier access to HGH through anti-aging clinics, prescription mills and the proliferation of personal trainers who fall outside NFL auspices. The latter has proven especially damaging in baseball. Rodriguez, Bonds and Clemens are all accused of having received steroid injections through outside parties.
“Pop ‘want to buy steroids’ into an internet search (engine) and you’ll get two million hits,” said Wood, who isn’t exaggerating. “The culture has changed. Drug dealers used to operate out of the gyms. Now, hitch onto some major-leaguer and you can make millions. It’s the same in football.
“It’s a phenomenon tied to insecurity. NFL players are about as insecure as you can get. There’s always somebody trying to take your spot.”
When he left the Cincinnati Bengals in 2002 after 28 seasons, Wood estimates that 95 percent of NFL players were steroid-free. Wood said the remaining “two to three percent were hardcore users that you could catch and the others could somehow beat the tests.”
The Bengals didn’t have any failed steroid tests during Wood’s final years but he suspects a handful of Cincinnati players were dirty.
“I’ve seen people take themselves out of games because they blew up (conditioning-wise), guys who were terrors in the first quarter that didn’t even play in the second half,” Wood said. “Steroids and growth hormone affect the body’s ability to cool itself.”
Wood said football doesn’t lend itself to steroid abuse as well as baseball because of the nature of both sports.
“Baseball is a drug sport like shot-putting and weight lifting,” Wood said. “If you increase the strength of the muscles, it makes sense that the ball you hit would go further. The negative (conditioning) part doesn’t come into play because there’s no sustained heavy exertion over a long period of time.”
Despite Wood’s warning about diminishing returns for NFL players, some will still seek an illegal edge. For every new test the league implements, there will always be someone trying to find a substance that can’t be detected.
The key for the NFL’s well-being is aggressively staying ahead of the curve to catch its own “A-Roids,” the cheaters who have placed their own self interests over the integrity of the game they claim to love.
Otherwise, the Teflon coating could scrape off in a hurry.