Why Don't More People Care If NFL Players Dope?

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Ray Lewis's non-scandal showed that performance-enhancing drugs may be widespread in pro football, but the nature of the game means that fans worry less about it than they do in baseball.

ray lewis barra peds 615 apimages.jpg
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

It's been more than a week since the Baltimore Ravens' 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, and what should have been the biggest story of pro football's postseason seems to have already faded away.

Ray Lewis, 13-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, according to reports, may have been using a performance-enhancing drug. But the drug in question—a spray that contains the anabolic hormone IGF-1, which can be synthetically made but is also found in the velvet on deer antlers—sounds so ludicrous that few in the sportswriting establishment are taking it seriously. And yet the drug is real, and whether or not it really enhances performance, it's undeniable that if Lewis tried to procure it, his intent was to cheat.

Like so many drugs that are called performance-enhancing, there's little clarity over whether IGF-1 does what some claim it can do: Build muscle. If it does build muscle, it could certainly have helped a player like Lewis, who returned to the Ravens' lineup the first week in January after suffering a severe triceps tear in October that many said would end his season.

But aside from the Sports Illustrated story that broke before the Super Bowl, where is the concern that the use of this and similar drugs might be widespread in football?

In truth, pro football has never particularly cared about anabolic steroids. The widespread accusations that some players on the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers "Steel Curtain" teams of the 1970s were juicing caused scarcely a stir, nor did the allegations dislodge those Steelers from the collective heart of America's football fans. Had similar rumors surfaced about the Cincinnati "Big Red Machine" teams of the same era, America's baseball fans would have had a collective heart attack.

On September 21, 2008, the San Diego Union-Tribune published a report that should have lit a fire about drug use in professional football: 185 NFL players were identified as users of PEDs. One of the more shocking aspects of the report was the rapidly growing size of NFL players, and not just offensive linemen, whose average weight has increased by more than 50 pounds over the last two decades. The report identified players at every position, including quarterback, as using PEDs, and players from every NFL franchise were mentioned. At the time, the Union-Tribune study was called "the Mitchell Report of Pro Football," referring to George Mitchell's hugely influential 2007 report on PED use in major-league baseball. In fact, the Union-Tribune's list was nearly 100 players longer than Mitchell's.

The deer-antler drug is real, and whether or not it really works, it's undeniable that if Lewis tried to procure it, his intent was to cheat.

One of the country's leading anabolic steroid experts, Charles Yesalis, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, was quoted as saying that the Union-Tribune story was, "Just touching the tip of iceberg."

But it seems to have changed nothing. No players were suspended; in fact, the NFL did little follow-up investigation. No indignant congressmen threatened hearings on the scale of those conducted by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform into steroid use in baseball.

Why doesn't the press or the public seem to care about performance-enhancing drug use in football like they do in baseball? A likely reason is statistics. Baseball fans love stats. Every true baseball aficionado knows 56 (the number of consecutive games in which Joe DiMaggio got at least one hit), .406 (Ted Williams's batting average in 1941, making him the last hitter to finish over .400 for the season), and 755, Henry Aaron's career home-run total, a record before Barry Bonds surpassed it in 2007.

These numbers have long been considered sacred by baseball fans, and bind one generation of fans to the next. And when players are thought to have used PEDs that end up juicing their numbers, the response is widespread anger.

The reason there hasn't been similar reaction among football fans is simple: There are only a handful of football fans for whom statistics really matter, and players at some positions—offensive linemen, for instance—have no statistics at all.

The ugly truth is that the documented use of PEDs in pro football predates anything in baseball. In 1962, Alvin Roy, a strength coach for the San Diego Chargers, was caught giving out steroid pills to his players. Despite the bad publicity, it wasn't until 1983 that the league banned anabolic steroids, and it took another six years for Commissioner Pete Rozelle to hand down the first suspensions for positive tests.

Still, the NFL was moving much faster than baseball on the subject of PEDs. Not until 2004 did MLB players and owners agree to test for PED use.

What the 2008 Union-Tribune study made apparent, though, was that the perception that the NFL had solved its drug problem was false. That perception remains false. During the 2012-2013 season, just 11 players were suspended for violation of the league's substance policy, but not one of them was an offensive lineman, the position where insiders say drug use is most rampant.

The reason why the NFL's drug testing policy doesn't work might well have been revealed five years before the Union-Tribune report in a 2003 book by football writer Mike Freeman, Bloody Sundays: Inside the Dazzling, Rough-and-Tumble World of the NFL. In 1999, reported Freeman, the NFL players had a meeting in Hawaii. Seeming to forget that the meeting was being recorded, one union official told player reps that several players had failed their drug tests but would not be punished because of "a secret agreement" between the league and the union not to enforce rules on drug use until a new policy, which was already in the works, was established.

Neither players nor owners, it seems, wanted the bad publicity. Such cozy relations between labor and management on potentially destructive drug use causes one to wonder if both sides still believe a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" attitude towards drugs to be in their best interests. If so, the apathy of the union and the owners seems to have anesthetized the fans to the dangers of widespread PED use.

What about the media? A few weeks ago, baseball writers showed overwhelming support for barring Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and several other players associated with PEDs from their hall of fame. Perhaps we won't know how the football press feels for another five years when Ray Lewis is up for induction in Pro Football's Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. For now, though, it looks like most reporters are following fans' and the league's lead by not caring much about whether Ray Lewis really did cheat or was just trying to cheat.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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