Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The National Football League and performance-enhancing drugs (in denial)

The $6 billion economic engine, better known as the National Football League, kicked off their 2006 season to record ratings, sellouts across the board and happy corporate sponsors and advertisers. On the surface all appears well with the National Football League. A look below the surface, offers a very different picture.

Despite plenty of evidence that suggests many NFLers are using performance-enhancing drugs, the Lords of the Pigskin continue to ignore a growing problem; one that in the not too distant future could hurt the game’s image. The NFL has experienced tremendous economic growth in the last twenty-five years; to the casual observer it appears there is nothing to stop the NFL from moving forward. Image counts for a great deal, and when all is said and done the damage done to the NFL’s image could hurt the economics of the game.

In the last two weeks, The Charlotte Observer reported that the medical records for members of the 2003 Carolina Panthers show repeated use of steroids during the Panthers run to Super Bowl XXXVIII. Thursday, Washington Redskins offensive lineman Jon Jansen, told The Washington Post that as many as 20 percent of current NFL players use performance-enhancing drugs on a regular basis. Through it all, the NFL stayed on message when it comes to football players using performance-enhancing drugs – denial, denial, denial. The NFL’s communications plan when it comes to dealing with performance-enhancing drugs, maybe if we never admit to anything the issue will disappear.

The Charlotte Observer are doing their part to get a different message out, a message that the use of steroids was rampant among members of the 2003 NFC champions, Carolina Panthers. The paper reported on August 27, 2006, medical records made public in court documents revealed that players were given multiple refillable steroid prescriptions and that some suffered unwanted, appearance-altering symptoms, prompting more prescriptions.

The medical records also raise questions that undercut the National Football League's claim that its steroids testing program is the best in pro sports.

"Several of them were using disturbing, particularly alarmingly high amounts with high dosages for long durations -- some in combinations," said steroids expert Dr. Gary Wadler, who reviewed the medical records and prepared a report for the U.S. Attorney's Office. "This wasn't just a passing flirtation with these prohibited substances.

"When I see (prescriptions) `renewed five times,' I say, `What are you trying to accomplish?' "

The Observer using investigative reporting determined that three of the five starting offensive linemen from the Panthers' February 2004 Super Bowl team -- guard Kevin Donnalley, center Jeff Mitchell and tackle Todd Steussie – used steroids on a regular basis, including in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Another member of that team, practice squad lineman Louis Williams, former Carolina tight end Wesley Walls and former University of South Carolina and NFL defensive lineman Henry Taylor were the other players.

Of the six, only Steussie is still playing in the NFL.

If the 2003 season is ancient history to the NFL, the comments Jansen offered the Washington Post’s represent a clear and present danger to the NFL’s resolve to all but ignore the issue.

"You know guys that are doing it," Jansen said on the HBO program "Costas Now" that aired last Wednesday night. "You know that they're cheating and you know that they're trying to get by with something."

The Post gave Gene Upshaw the executive director for the NFL Players Association an opportunity to react to Jansen’s comments. Not only did Upshaw not directly comment on Jansen’s assertions, he told The Washington Post there is little if anything that can be done about the use of HGH by NFL players. If nothing else, Upshaw’s insight demonstrated the NFLPA’s cavalier attitude towards the use of members of Upshaw’s union using banned substances that can dramatically affect the long-term life of abusers.

"I don't see any reason to change our program at all," Upshaw said. "If you have someone who's cheating, we'll catch him if the science allows it. We test enough. We test for everything we can test for, and we're always adding substances to the banned list when the science allows us to test for them. The only way to improve the drug program is to improve the science of the testing. When that happens, call me."

It would be wrong to believe Upshaw doesn’t care, but to say he might not understand the affects steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs can have on a human being might indeed be plausible.

The life and times of Lyle Alzado are a testament to the damage long-term steroid abuse can have on a professional football player. He played defensive line for the Los Angeles Raiders, Cleveland Browns, and Denver Broncos during the 1970s and early 1980s. He was noted as a colorful and popular figure with each team.

A broken man, in his early 40’s Alzado became the first major professional athlete to admit he had used steroids throughout his NFL career. In the last years of his life, as he battled against the brain cancer that eventually caused his death at the age of 43, Alzado asserted that his steroid abuse directly led to his final illness. This assertion has been disputed by many medical experts as there is no medical evidence steroids had anything to do with his condition and his own doctors denied the claim that they did.

Most of today’s NFLers has no idea who Lyle Alazdo is, how he died, or what Alzado believed led to his death at 43. The Observer’s report mentioned each of the Panthers who allegedly used steroids did so despite being fully aware of the damages they may have been doing to their bodies:

• Donnalley ignored his family history of stroke, putting his life at risk. Mitchell complained of hair loss and shrunken testicles, common side effects of steroid use. Steussie was prescribed anti-estrogen drugs usually reserved for female breast cancer and infertility patients but also used by male steroid users to prevent breast growth.

• Less than a week before the Panthers left Charlotte for the Super Bowl in Houston, Steussie and Williams were given prescriptions for a combined five NFL-banned substances, including two forms of testosterone.

The five included three additional substances Shortt prescribed to Panthers beyond what was previously known. They were injectable testosterone cypionate to Williams, and the banned supplement androstenedione and the hormone DHEA to Steussie. Shortt also prescribed stanozolol to Williams and testosterone cream to Steussie.

• Panthers players were commonly given testosterone prescriptions allowing five refills. Between April 2003 and March 2004, Donnalley and Steussie each were given three such prescriptions for testosterone cream, giving each the opportunity to fill prescriptions 18 times.

• For the first time since the case became public, the report indicates at least one of the players -- Mitchell -- got banned substances from a source other than Shortt. According to the report, Mitchell told Shortt in his first visit with the doctor in May 2003 that he was already using HGH daily.

• All six players in Wadler's report were prescribed or reported using HGH, which has been called the performance-enhancing drug of choice because pro sports such as the NFL and Major League Baseball have not approved a test for it, making it virtually undetectable.

The NFL uses urine tests for steroids and related substances. Blood tests for HGH were used to screen Olympic athletes in Athens in 2004, but NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw recently said he considered the blood tests unreliable and overly intrusive.

• The report shows at least two other NFL teams were affected. Records show Steussie continued getting prescriptions for banned substances from Shortt after joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March 2004, and that Taylor got prescriptions for testosterone cream, testosterone lozenges and HGH from Shortt between April and July 2002 while with the Miami Dolphins.

The day after Jansen made his first set of comments, the Washington Post spoke with other members of the Redskins to gauge their reaction to Jansen’s assertions.

"I wouldn't put anything past some guys," running back Ladell Betts said. "If you can get away with it, I'm sure some guys would try it. It's very competitive in this league, trying to keep your job, and once you bring the money into the equation you never know what somebody will do."

Center Casey Rabach said, "If there's ways for guys to cheat -- with as much money that's out there and the fame and glory that's possible -- guys are going to take shortcuts and try to cheat."

Bubba Tyer, the Redskins' director of sports medicine who has spent 34 years in the organization, kept on the NFL’s message of pretending the problem doesn’t exist.

"What's Jon's experience been? He's only played for the Washington Redskins," Tyer said. "I don't know who he's talking about. In fact, I asked him that question today, and he just grinned and didn't have an answer. I have no idea who is taking what. You just don't know. Can you suspect? Yeah, you can suspect. I'm not so naive as to say no one has tried it, but I have no way of saying if it's 5 percent or 50 percent.

"I'm a league guy, and I think we have an excellent drug program. Can we get better at some point when the technology is there and it's good and reliable? Then, yeah, we should test for it. It's kind of open-ended. I want to see it get better and better. I've been in the league since 1971; the drug program started in '72 or '73 with the prescription drug program, and it's evolved to what it is today and the longer I'm here the better it gets."

Jansen for his part, did somewhat of an about face, speaking with the Associated Press.

"What I meant by it was that it was a small number of players," Jansen said. "Being a football player, I'm not real good at math. When you do the numbers, it sounds like a bigger percentage than it really is. I meant it was a small percentage of guys."

"When there is something out there that people believe is going to help them, we'd be very naive and foolish to think that if you can't test for it, guys are going to try it," Jansen said. "Right now there is not a test for human growth hormone, and when they develop that, I hope the NFL will institute that in our drug policy. If there's anybody on our team that would use it, there would be guys on our team who would confront him and say, 'Hey, this is not something we want to do.' But right now, I'm sure there are guys that use it, and it is part of the world that we live in."

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Thursday sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell; rejecting the NFL’s claim the NFL doesn’t have a steroid problem.

"The new report by the Charlotte Observer, if true, shows a deeper penetration of steroids into the NFL than the NFL report acknowledged," Waxman wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Observer.

"The combination of these reports about the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs in the NFL shows that there are still important lessons to be learned for the league, including how the NFL drug testing program could have failed to detect this use of banned substances," Waxman wrote.

"I hope the NFL will make every effort to learn these lessons and apply them to a new and more effective policy to rid the league of performance-enhancing drugs."

"We look forward to continuing our discussions with Congressman Waxman and Chairman (Tom) Davis (R-Va.) and the committee staff," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in The Charlotte Observer report. "We are committed to continuing to have the best program in sports."

The NFL talks tough, telling anyone who’s prepared to listen that last year less than 1 percent of its players got caught using performance-enhancing drugs (key phrase getting caught). Currently there is no test for human growth hormones, the drug of choice according to the Redskin’s Jansen. When NFL players reported to training camp to prepare for the 2006 season, more then 400 players reported to their teams’ respective training camps weighing more then 300 pounds.

"We see how easy it is to get around the testing [regimen] and how widespread it was, people getting renewals on their prescriptions and everything else," Rep. Tom Davis told the Observer. "That is a loophole that is going to have to be closed."

It may not make sense for someone to knowingly use performance-enchanting drugs that could dramatically shorten their lives, but it’s easy to understand. The average NFL career is three to four years. NFL contacts are not guaranteed, only a players’ bonus money is guaranteed. First round draft picks sign contracts that include multi-million dollar bonuses. Remember an NFL team includes 43 players. Have a bad game and you could be gone the next day. Imagine how anyone would feel if they suffered a crippling injury, and realized the career they had spent so many years getting ready for was over.

The salary cap for the upcoming NFL season is $102.5 million per team, an increase of $17 million above the 2005 figure. How big an increase is it? When the salary cap was set at $75 million in 2003, it was also a $17 million increase — from 1999 ($57.3 million). The cap was $52.4 million in 1998, so it has almost doubled in eight years.

According to a report in the USA Today the NFL Players Association's research department says the average player salary rose 5% in 2005 to $1.4 million and that the average starter earns $2,259,000. The median salary for all starters was $1.7 million, an increase of 17%. The average for quarterbacks, running backs and offensive tackles was in excess of $3 million. The average salary for the 2001 was $1,169,470 reflected a 5% increase over 1999, according to NFL Players Association documents. It bested the previous high of $1,137,800 set in 1998.

Despite the obvious damage it is all about image if you played football and been good since your days in Pop Warner football. At high school you where the homecoming king, the guy every other guy in school wanted to be. You went to university on a full athletic scholarship and began to experience the lifestyle of a big time athlete. First class plane rides, great meals, you’re the big man on campus. Finally you have an opportunity to live the dream – playing on Sundays. You get to be a real life Vince Papale.
Then all of a sudden the only life you’ve known for close to 20 years is in jeopardy. You realize how dangerous using performance-enhancing drugs can be, but faced with the end of the only life you’ve known you believe you have only one choice. Faced with an opportunity to earn millions of dollars you believe you have only one choice. The problem with that line of thinking as Lyle Alzado learnt, dying is far worse then not being able to play football.

Is the National Football League responsible? Yes and no. The NFL has the responsibility to educate and inform players’. One issue the NFL has to learn to deal with, a belief that bigger is better. Has the NFL developed a mentality encouraging players to do whatever they have to do to get bigger and look the other way? If that is true, then the NFL is guilty of a misguided belief system. However, the ultimate accountability lies with the abusers, the young men who knowingly abuse their bodies for one more Sunday. It’s a complex issue, with no easy answers.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The Charlotte Observer, The Washington Post and the USA Today