- The Panthers LB’s four-game suspension for PEDs may come as a surprise to fans and media alike, but at the end of the day, how much will it really impact his legacy?
When Carolina Panthers linebacker and 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year winner Thomas Davis announced the NFL had suspended him for the four first games of the 2018 season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy, the contradiction was evident. How can a man who leads by example on and off the field, whose heartfelt acceptance speech at the NFL Honors award show gave an extra boost to the league’s highest honor, impugn the integrity of the game by trying to gain a competitive advantage via PEDs? How are fans supposed to reconcile this?
The short answer is they don’t have to reconcile it. Whether or not they believe Davis—he said the positive test was caused by an estrogen blockers, and don’t ask him how it got into his supplements that he’s been using for half of his career—a recent history of this league shows that any one-time stain regarding PED use goes away quickly in the eyes of many.
First, none of this is to call Davis a cheat. A quick Google search shows estrogen blockers are commonly linked to athletes who finish a steroid cycle, but that’s not always the case. It seems unlikely that the laboratory—accredited by the ISO and the World Anti-Doping Association—mishandled both his A and B specimens, and if so that surely would have come up under any appeals he may have brought to the league. And many supplements taken are not approved by the government, so the NFLPA tells its players there is “no way to be sure that they contain ingredients listed on the packaging” or “have not been tainted with prohibited substances.”
“I can honestly tell you guys that my conscience is clear in this situation,” Davis said in a video he posted Friday afternoon explaining his suspension.
I’ve been interviewing Davis since 2012, and in full disclosure, I’ve been appearing on TV in Charlotte with his wife, Kelly, for the better part of a year. I like the Davises, and I believe he’s a good man, husband and father who does amazing work in the community and who leads the locker room by example. But I cannot vouch for what he does or does not put in his body.
Whether you believe his explanation or not, ultimately what does it matter when it comes to the NFL? Fans and media alike try to fully appreciate what these men put their bodies through 16 times in 17 weeks, and we hear about the extensive pain management they must deal with weekly, how the next-day feeling is likened to the aftermath of a car accident. It’s beyond anything that the average person can comprehend.
Perhaps we grant the players more grace than, say, a baseball player—someone playing a game featuring little contact with the opponent who tries to cheat in order to hit the ball farther. Much has been written about how we treat those stained baseball players much more harshly than we do their football counterparts.
“The NFL has for nearly 30 years now been at the forefront of trying to maintain the integrity of competition on our field through, among other things, the deterrence and elimination of performance enhancing substances,” Adolpho Birch, the league’s senior VP of labor policy and league affairs, told me Tuesday morning. “We have repeatedly and without prodding undergone a continuing series of improvements to our program which, frankly, we’re the model for most other programs that are out there now.
“While I wouldn’t want to talk about or reflect on any other league’s history or policy … what I can tell you is that all of our players, our union, our clubs and, I think, our fans understand that we are committed to eliminating the use of performance-enhancing substances. And the consequences of using them are severe.”
Missing out on a quarter of the season without pay is indeed a substantial penalty for a first-time offender, and that’s reflected in the low rate of recidivism. Cases of second- or third-time offenders to the league’s PED policy are rare. (The PED policy is different than the league’s substance abuse policy, though it’s still ridiculous that a player could theoretically play a game drunk but have to sit out four games for legally or illegally hitting a blunt on his off day.) Touch the PED stove once, whether on purpose or by accident, and a player probably won’t do it again.
Julius Peppers will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer five years after he retires and few would remember his rookie-year suspension for taking a banned dietary supplement that triggered a four-game suspension. Joe Haden, Aqib Talib and Haloti Ngata got dinged for what they all said was Adderall, and it’s a footnote for each of the men. Antonio Gates, a man who transformed the tight end position, received a suspension to start the 2015 season for what he said was an increased testosterone level via supplements and he’s still a hero to pro football fans in southern California. Alshon Jeffery was the No. 1 wideout for the Super Bowl champs with a fat new contract less than two years after his suspension. Heck, Rodney Harrison reportedly had HGH delivered to his doorstep during the postseason and is remembered more for being a dirty player on the field than a cheater.
At 35 years old, Davis has endured three ACL surgeries and played well in a Super Bowl with a broken arm that looked like the laces side of a football. He’s played better on the plus-side of 30 than anyone would expect. It’s understandable that Davis wants to ensure that his fine-wine legacy remains legitimate. He doesn’t want to go out on this note, and he hinted that he may not retire in 2018 as previously scheduled.
But as fans cheer and the media writes the history of this game, what seems to be proven is that we ultimately don’t care about some positive test. Our hunger to see these players on the field may be too great to care.