Thrill of Victory

Is football's drug problem bigger than baseball's?

Nothing surprises me anymore; just as I think the Super Bowl might dominate the news in the week leading up to the (ahem!) “Big Game,” sports gives us more scandals. Tuesday brought news that baseball has yet-another drug scandal, and football may as well: Baltimore’s Ray Lewis, it appears, used a banned substance to recover from an injury in order to play again this season.

Baseball, by its abject greed, carelessness and stupidity in preventing drug scandals, has been the target of many a blog here at The Thrill of Victory. There’s no defending what baseball did, though at least after its years of obstinance on anything drug-related, it’s finally got a serious testing program. One of the last hurdles came when the Major League Baseball’s Players’ Association finally agreed to test for high levels of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) and testosterone, which will happen this year.

But as baseball finally deals with its own problems, Lewis’s issue brought to the forefront the fact that football has issues of its own. I have always wondered why, while baseball has (deservedly) been endlessly hammered, the NFL isn’t more carefully scrutinized.

When the facts that baseball wasn’t a clean game became evident more than a decade ago, the reaction was almost immediate: it had been obvious that players were using drugs. The example that was generally cited was how big the players had become; why, could Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa get that big, that quickly, just by working out alone?

At the time, I thought that it was slightly unfair to blame the media for snoozing by the PED scandal. Yes, the media had some blame, but there’s two things that made blowing the whistle on baseball so difficult.

First, there’s potentially an incredible liability for publishing accusations, even if they’re dead-on. As Lance Armstrong proved, you can hire great lawyers for enough money and beat the rap for years and years, even if you’re as guilty as you can be.

Second, baseball’s drug problem wasn’t so obvious to a lot of people in hindsight. Most reading this are not professional athletes. Most of us have day jobs and don’t know how an athlete’s life works. I’m lucky to get to the gym three times a week, so I’m certainly not the expert here.

But what about it, athletes? Can you grow from 190 pounds to 225 in a year or two from working out every day, especially when you have personal trainers and dieticians? I always presumed (again, based on my own lack of knowledge) that it was possible, though now most would laugh at that. So if you’re in that boat and can give me answers, please, leave your comments below.

And here’s what I don’t understand: in light of the “it was so obvious” attitude towards baseball, why haven’t we been more skeptical regarding football and PEDs?I’m going to try a little exercise that we’ll call “now vs. then,” courtesy of my treasured childhood collection of 1978 Topps football cards, of comparing the sizes of players from that era to now. I’ll use the Cleveland Browns for comparison, since Lewis leads off the discussion and the Ravens’ franchise was then the Browns.

The first Brown I find as I thumb through my collection is center Tom Deleone, who checks in at 6-foot-2 and 249 pounds. His counterpart on this year’s Ravens squad is 6-foot-4, 310-pound Matt Birk. That’s a difference of two inches and 61 pounds. I get to 6-foot, 235-pound middle linebacker Dick Ambrose and compare him to Ray Lewis (6-foot-1, 250) all the way down to kicker Don Cockroft, who is actually one inch and 15 pounds bigger than Ravens’ kicker Justin Tucker.

In my 23 comparisons, the 1978 Browns were 0.4 inches taller, on average. However, the 2012 Ravens weigh 30.6 pounds more.

The biggest differences come on the lines, where Ravens’ linemen Haloti Ngata (defense) and Ma’ake Kemoetu and Bryant McKinnie (offense) weigh 72, 88 and 108 pounds, respectively, than Jerry Sherk, Bob Jackson and Doug Dieken, despite the fact that they’re collectively three inches taller (all the difference belonging to McKinnie).

At the very moment I am typing this, Harold Reynolds is on MLB Network speaking, coincidentally, on the same issue. I couldn’t have come up with more appropriate commentary with what’s about to follow that what Reynolds, a former baseball player, just said when co-host Matt Vasgersian asked him about the difference in how football and baseball players are treated with respect to PEDs.

“It’s actually offensive, when you sit back as a professional athlete. I know baseball – I don’t want to make this sound holier-than-thou, because this isn’t it, but the other sports have to step up. It’s a joke. When you have (football players) that are six-seven, three-fifty and run 4.4 forties, that’s not natural,” Reynolds said. “I don’t think they (football) take (drug testing) to the next level. And they’ve made a point in sports – and congress did this – that we’re worried about the kids. Well, it’s the most popular sport in the country now… you need to put a spotlight on it and say, ‘What’s real here?’

“I think we’ve gotten to the point that it’s so popular, and making so much money, that we’ve turned a blind eye to it. There’s no way in the world that athletes, whether it’s college football or NFL, are able to do the things they’re doing naturally. I just don’t think there is, and I don’t think they’ve done enough to go to the next steps to make it a fair playing ground, and a healthy playing ground.”

Baseball resisted testing on anything for years, undoubtedly because it was afraid of what the findings could be. Now, the NFL Players’ Union is throwing up a similar roadblock on HGH testing, questioning the accuracy of the test even though the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has used the same test since 2004.

Hmmm…

I don’t doubt that players have gotten bigger and stronger through regular weight-lifting and year-round training; those things were not part of the game 35 years ago. Then again, I was offering the same defense for baseball players before I knew the truth.

It was interesting to see Reynolds articulate about football exactly what I’ve been thinking for years. I hope others start asking the same difficult questions, especially if the allegations about Lewis turn out to be true.