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

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.

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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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