In nine seasons with the Houston Texans, linebacker Brian Cushing tested positive for performance enhancing substances twice. On the first occasion, he claimed the excess level of human chorionic gonadotropin hormone was a consequence of “over-trained athlete syndrome”. Second time around, there was no attempt to mitigate the finding and he served a 10-game suspension as a repeat offender. Having retired last February, Cushing, an individual dogged by steroid allegations since his days as a high school phenom, was recently re-hired by the Texans. He will be an assistant-coach in their strength and conditioning department.
It would be laughable if it wasn’t typical of the NFL.
At every Super Bowl, sports talk shows from all across America set up shop at a venue known as “Radio Row”. Each day during the build-up, former and current players file in to do interviews where, most of the time, they are flogging products. Bill Romanowski was there in Atlanta last week, shilling a low-fat smoothie and trading on a 16-year NFL career that yielded four rings. Of course, as he moved from microphone to microphone, nobody mentioned that Romanowski was a serial steroid user, the only gridiron name to feature in the BALCO scandal, and somebody who once broke a team-mate’s eye socket in a ‘roid-rage incident.
In any other sport, Romanowski would be a pariah. In the NFL, he’s a distinguished alumnus. Against that background, it’s hardly surprising then that America didn’t really bat an eyelid at Julian Edelman winning Super Bowl MVP, after missing the first four games of the season for a drug suspension. In these parts, there is no stigma to being caught using a performance-enhancer, especially when the hero narrative involves a five foot ten wide receiver who puts his chemically-assisted body on the line in the most bruising parts of the field.
Edelman is just this year’s model. At Super Bowl 50, the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller walked away with the same trophy and his resumé included a six-match ban for attempting to avoid a urine test in 2013. In that incident, Miller collaborated with a star-struck tester to provide a sample that wasn’t his. But, the night the Broncos won it all, he forced two fumbles, made six tackles and nobody brought up the other ugly business. Not to mention he featured in a television commercial celebrating NFL greats that ran during last Sunday’s game.
This is a league with a seriously skewed sense of morality. Smoking marijuana to relieve pain and to find sleep after a bruising game is verboten yet a team doctor walking through the team plane dispensing post-match painkillers and anti-inflammatories like smarties is perfectly fine. A generation of prematurely crippled middle-aged men who once were linebackers are currently shuffling around America paying the price for this dystopian culture. They are left to rue a sport that promotes pill-popping and somehow regards performance-enhancing substances as merely evidence of a desire to improve. Witness various clowns in media here arguing Edelman only took stuff to assist his recovery from an ACL injury.
Most American fans take a two-pronged approach to defending their almost impressive indifference to the steroids menace. Firstly, they believe every athlete at the top of a sport is taking something (if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’ – as the mantra goes) so the playing field is more or less level. Secondly, they see sport as an extension of the entertainment industry. They don’t care what went into the player’s body that allows him perform some wondrous feat, much like they aren’t concerned by what special effects were required to cause a massive explosion in a movie. They just want to enjoy the gaudy spectacle. Regardless.
This attitude isn’t exclusive to the NFL. Baseball folk are currently complaining that stuffy journalists are keeping some celebrated steroid cheats out of the sport’s Hall of Fame. It’s hardly as if the players are being shunned though. Mark McGwire, after a hiatus, returned to the game as a hitting coach with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, and at every stop fathers would push their sons forward to snag his autograph.
His erstwhile home run-hitting rival Barry Bonds spent time last year as a hitting instructor with the San Francisco Giants who then, in the ultimate accolade, retired his number 25 shirt in a pre-game ceremony. The crowd went wild that August day and Sports Illustrated tweeted a photo of the event with just the word "legend". We'd expect nothing more from a once great magazine that has made a significant contribution to the national doping myopia.
In the summer of 2001, Sports Illustrated dispatched two reporters to the Dominican Republic to find the birth cert of Danny Almonte, a kid who was lighting up the Little League World Series. They investigated whether the boy was 12, as he claimed, or 14, as others alleged. At that time, the magazine had no interest in touching the Lance Armstrong story even though he was then in his Tour de France pomp, the subject of serious suspicion in Europe, and about the most beloved athlete in this country.
“Tough times don’t last,” said Edelman last Sunday night. “Tough people do. I preach that. I have to try to live to that.”
Twelve hours later, he was posing for photos in Disney World. Another land of make believe.