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Thursday, March 31, 2005
Opinion: Tagliabue, NFL won't be fazed

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Just given the momentum of natural progression, with laws of physics extended enough to apply to all the hot-button issues, firestorms typically grow exponentially into infernos. And so it was relatively predictable on Thursday afternoon that Congress' sudden and incendiary fixation with steroids reached out and tapped the NFL on its broad shoulder.

And, for once, it was seeking something more than free Super Bowl tickets.

But here's a prediction for the guys on The Hill, those savants who find excuses now to interject themselves into every component of life that doesn't deal with realities such as spiraling medical costs, many of whom qualify for at least the second half of the term knee-jerk: Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, summoned to appear in the hallowed halls of Washington, D.C., at some undetermined date, figures to turn both the public blaze and Congress' manufactured gaze into an innocuous brush fire.

Steroids Policies Of The MLB And NFL*
MLB NFL
Frequency of tests At least once a year Once a year
Penalty for 1st offense 10-day suspension 4-game suspension
Penalty for 2nd offense 30-day suspension 6-game suspension
Penalty for 3rd offense 60-day suspension Min. 1-year suspension
*All suspensions without pay

Sorry to douse your dome, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), but Tags is preparing to rain on your pontification parade. Heck, I'm thinking of petitioning my boss to let me cover that appearance, so I can be in the chambers when Tagliabue responds to Congress with the same dismissive manner that has become a hallmark of his media press conferences.

This time, though, the commissioner will be justified in his haughty high-handedness. And that's because Tagliabue long ago took care of business in regards to steroids.

Pardon the Pollyannaism here, folks, but the NFL is no longer teeming with Neanderthals pumped up on The Juice. Beyond the blaze and the gaze, when the legislative branch that has now appointed itself moral arbiter and ethical rudder yanks back the curtain on the NFL, it won't uncover anything remotely resembling 'roid rage.

Notice, please, the "no longer" disclaimer. There was a time, for sure, when plenty of players turned to steroids to, they felt, enhance their strength. As a callow reporter back in the late-'70s, I was too na´ve to understand how a 270-pound tight end could become a 300-pound offensive tackle in just a few months. By the '80s, a little wiser and a lot more worldly, I knew, when I walked in on a couple offensive linemen injecting each other in the hip, those syringes weren't filled with, say, Vitamin B.

But to suggest that the NFL has a serious steroid problem, because of the allegations that originated in Columbia, S.C., involving some Carolina Panthers players, is perhaps even more despicable than the contentions of the '70s that the entire league was juicing up.

It was a wide paint brush 30 years ago. Waxman and his colleagues will need something even wider to extend their tarrin' and featherin' to more than a few misguided NFL rank-and-filers. Because the NFL has been every bit as diligent in its testing and enforcement procedures, folks, as major league baseball has been negligent in allowing its run amok players association to dictate feigned ignorance.

One bad apple does not, the old adage aside, spoil the entire peck. Nor do the allegations against the three Panthers players. Or even the suspensions of four Oakland Raiders for their involvement in the THG standard two years ago.

OK, so our standards may be arbitrary. Perhaps flimsy and hazy as well. But when your job is to be an observer, the eyes of those to whom you deliver the news, you tend to see a few things in locker rooms. In nearly three decades, you see a lot of things, in fact. For whatever it's worth, these two eyes, nearsighted as they may be, haven't seen a lot of pumped-up muscle men sitting in front of locker stalls the last 15 years or so.

What we've observed, truth be told, is a lot of fat guys. Linemen who long ago passed the 300-pound mark. But not guys who are "cut," not players who could capture a Mr. Atlas contest, at least not without industrial-strength liposuction. We see a lot of players more likely to keel over from cardiac arrest, honestly, than from anabolic steroid abuse.

Too many steak dinners? You betcha. Too many Stanozolol injections? Uh, not lately.

If Congress wants to investigate clogged arteries and skyrocketing cholesterol, well, yeah, venture into the meeting room of any NFL teams' offensive linemen. If they're trying to unearth a cache of Dianabol, well, good luck.

All of us, including yours truly, would be na´ve to believe the NFL is completely devoid of steroid abusers, of guys looking for an edge. But if the field isn't 100 percent level, it is as close as any sport gets, largely because 15-20 years ago players decided they were not going to allow their peers to gain chemically-induced advantages. And Tagliabue put teeth in the NFL's steroid abuse program, further limiting anabolic edges.

Test positive one time in the NFL and the result is a four-game suspension. The punitive action for steroids is even more strident that the league's substance abuse policy, a tiered system in which a first offense merits counseling and testing, and not lost time. A four-game suspension in the NFL, without pay, means a player has lost nearly one-quarter of his base salary for one misstep. That threat, along with peer pressure and education, has helped clean up the sport.

Is even one steroid abuser too many? Of course. But the NFL has been the toughest of all professional sports and, even before the Carolina allegations, there plans for the program to get even more vigilant, as the league wants to implement harsher guidelines, those that mirror the International Olympic Committee standards.

None of this is to suggest that Waxman and his cohorts aren't well-intentioned. They are, as is their wont, playing to public pressures. And, to a lesser extent, there probably are a few Congressman who believe the environment is sufficiently charged, given the outrage over baseball's perceived excesses, to merit their dog-and-pony show.

But if the witch hunt really involves a fly-over of the NFL and its policies, then Congress is riding its broomsticks into the wrong venue. They will find Tagliabue and his minions to be totally cooperative, remarkably candid, cautious yet proud of the programs that the league has enacted. Bet the house that, in what surely promises to be a three-ring circus, Tagliabue will be ring-masterful.

And that for his Congressional inquisitors, the proceedings will be much ado about very little.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Information from ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton and The Associated Press was used in this report.