When it comes to rules against performance-enhancing drugs, the NFL’s system works.
It works for the league, which gets to suspend a few players each year and maintain the illusion that it is doing everything possible to crack down on PED use.
It works for fans who want to enjoy the games without thinking too much about the long-term damage being done to the men who play them. They’re tested for steroids, right? And didn’t the league just pay a bunch of money to take care of the concussion guys?
It works most of all for the players, whose union has proved that its main concern is ever-escalating salaries and not protecting the health of its membership.
How do we know the system works? Look at recent events. In the span of just a few days, two of the top four players selected in the 2013 draft were implicated in PED use. That is an astonishing turn of events, by any rational measure. And the general reaction from the public so far? A collective shrug of the shoulders.
It started when the Philadelphia Daily News reported last week that Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, the fourth pick in the 2013 draft, would be suspended for a positive PED test. The league still has not taken punitive action against Johnson.
Now it is important to note that NFL policy does not require any announcement of exactly what banned substance is at issue. Without more facts, we can’t really put together a full picture of what the players were using and what they were trying to achieve.
Bear in mind, the NFL and its players are at a permanent impasse that has prevented any kind of testing for human growth hormone. It is an impasse, you can be sure, that will be broken the moment something has replaced HGH as the substance of choice for elite athletes.
The bottom line is, we don’t know what Jordan or Johnson were doing or what their goals were. All we can really be reasonably certain of is that they accomplished what they set out to do and that NFL justice isn't going to change that.
As the third pick in the draft, Jordan received a contract with $20.75 million guaranteed, including a signing bonus of about $13.7 million. His punishment for failing a drug test is a four-game suspension. That means he will lose 4/17 of his 2014 salary, which is $495,000. That’s a penalty of $116,470.
Consider those numbers again. Jordan will lose $116,470. His total gain, allegedly from using PEDs to make himself a high first-round pick, is $20.75 million. That’s a pretty good return on investment.
Johnson, who started all 16 games plus a playoff game at right tackle last year, is guaranteed just under $20 million in his contract. His penalty, too, would be $116,470. That is a pretty good deal. It is also a very strong argument for players to use whatever means necessary to get to the highest level of their sport. The penalty just does not offset the possible benefits.
And that’s when there is a penalty. With no HGH testing and with all the other schemes for cheating that are being carried out in labs around the country, there is no way to guess how many PED users are going unpunished in the NFL and every other major sport.
Baseball’s sad history on this matter is all too well known. But the NBA has almost no history of catching cheaters in a sport that is all about size, strength and speed. The NHL may have the weakest record of any of the four major sports. And don’t even bother with golf, NASCAR or other sports that have managed to avoid scrutiny altogether.
The NFL was, perhaps accidentally, ahead of the curve compared to other sports when the public was forming opinions about the PED epidemic. The league was catching and suspending players years before baseball even acknowledged that steroids might provide some advantage to players. For fans, who have other things to think about, the NFL seemed to be at least trying to weed steroid users out of its game. That was good enough.
And it still is, for the most part. And so the system continues to work. Throw a couple of high first-round picks onto the list of cheaters, and everyone can continue going about their business. The system continues to work.
For the league, for the fans and for the players, it works. Actually eradicating PEDs would require a much different approach. This one looks good and sounds good and doesn’t cause too much trouble. It does exactly what it’s designed to do.