Wednesday May 26th, 2010

Does the American public have a double standard for when a professional baseball player tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs, as opposed to a professional football player?

Brian Cushing, the Houston Texans linebacker, 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year and recently revealed PEDs user, is an interesting test case. What if an MLB player tests positive after winning a major award? "You're going to get a public outcry of epic proportions," Astros first baseman Lance Berkman told the Houston Chronicle. "If you had an equally dominating player in baseball, that would dominate headlines for days and days. I think people consider baseball an American institution. Football may be America's sport, but baseball is America's institution. It's held to a different standard, more like mom and apple pie, sort of one of the things that defines who we are as Americans, and I think people look at that and value the sanctity of the sport probably at a different level [than] they view football."

Add to Berkman's comments the fact that baseball is a far more statistically-driven game, and it's much easier to connect PEDs use by baseball players to specific on-field feats -- and to the breaking of hallowed records -- than it is in football.

It might also be argued that the difference correlates to the divergent ways in which we view, and compare ourselves to, the men who play the two sports. Professional football players, most kickers and punters aside, are almost inconceivably bigger and/or faster and/or quicker than we are to begin with, and while we can dream about doing what they do on Sundays, few of us believe that we ever might realistically have been one of them.

Professional baseball players, by and large, are different. There is no physical archetype, or set of physical archetypes, that is necessary to being a successful ballplayer. They can be impossibly fat, improbably thin; short, tall; muscle-bound, slack-bellied; even one-handed, or three-fingered. Major leaguers will tell you that two of the most impressive physical specimens among their ranks are Gabe Kapler and Lenny DiNardo, but still those gentlemen remain Gabe Kapler and Lenny DiNardo. On the other hand, the sport features or has featured stars such as John Kruk, Livan Hernandez and Pablo Sandoval, none of whom represents a threat to pose for a photo-shoot while wearing only a tiger-striped thong, as Kapler once did. The sports-minded among us can easily imagine that if our lives had broken a bit differently, we, too, might have been among them, no matter our natural physical traits. It seems, therefore, somehow more offensive to many, more unfair, when a baseball player is found to have tried to enhance his physique through unnatural means.

When it was revealed earlier this month that Cushing had tested positive for hCg (a fertility drug that is often taken to mask the use of anabolic steroids), and would as a result be suspended for the first four games of the 2010 regular season, it was telling that the central brouhaha that arose didn't concern Cushing's act itself, but whether the Associated Press would redo its Defensive Rookie of the Year vote in light of the news. In something of an impotent and willy-nilly move (and one that ought to make us glad that the AP decision-makers have no influence on our nation's jurisprudence), the vote was retaken. Cushing won again, though he was stripped of his second team All-Pro selection. So there.

That the NFL has its own PEDs problem was underscored last week when The Washington Post reported that Redskins receiver Santana Moss had been "treated" by Toronto-based physician Anthony Galea, a known (and formally accused) HGH peddler. (To be fair to Moss, he has not been suspended by the NFL, and had not failed a drug test -- though there is no reliable urine test for HGH, and blood testing has not been agreed to by the NFL Players Association). The Moss news barely registered as a blip on the news wires. Brett Favre, after all, did something or other.

So, double standard? Perhaps. Part of it might be that we have simply grown tired of PEDs stories, whether they're in baseball or football or another sport entirely, and are ready to wring our hands about something else. And if an NFL player more on the level of Manny Ramirez or Alex Rodriguez -- which Cushing and Moss are not -- ever tests positive, the volume of the public outcry might well be equivalent. But we must also wonder whether we're wasting our time fretting and thinking about things like double standards, and whether or not to hold revotes on postseason awards, at the expense of addressing the root issue, which is: Why do professional athletes continue to take performance-enhancing drugs, and what can be done about it?

It seems so very simple. They do it because the potential reward from doing it still far exceeds the risk. The "before" and "after" photos of Cushing that are now everywhere on the web show how, in the span of only a few years, a soft-chested, thin-wristed teen turned into rippling, sweat-drenched beast -- one who is a nationally-known celebrity, and one who, not least, will be paid up to $14 million in the first five years of his career (less, of course, the four games' pay he'll lose this fall). One suspects that Cushing still would have done what he appears to have done, even if he'd known that he might be subjected to some low-level public embarrassment and a dreaded AP revote.

The NFL and Major League Baseball could, if they were bold, attempt to impose the ultimate penalty on their first-time offenders: lifetime bans. Of course, even if they were able to push such a draconian measure past their unions, it would not be in the leagues' best interests, as they'd risk the regular loss of some of their most popular and profit-generating stars, and that risk/reward scenario does not tilt in their favor. And even if they did expel first-time offenders for life (the MLB currently suspends them for 50 games, or slightly less than 1/3 of a season; the NFL for four games, or 1/4 of a season), there would still be plenty of athletes who would use PEDs, if they felt as if the choice was between using them for a shot at even a few seasons, even a few games, of public adulation and paychecks appended with zeroes, or never having any of that at all.

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