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NFL needs to get with the program vs. PED cheaters

Jun. 16, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

The first thing you learn about sports from a young age is that winning matters (it's why you keep score), but the first lesson about winning is enough to almost make winning beside the point. It's the cardinal rule of competition -- no cheating, ever. You've heard the cliches: Cheaters never win; winners never cheat. Once a cheater, always a cheater.

Because of this cultural framework, people really care about performance-enhancing drugs in sports; well, at least certain sports.

For example, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were stonewalled from Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown this year, a move that was a clear and public admonishment to the steroid era. The governing body of cycling stripped Lance Armstrong of seven Tour de France titles he won from 1999 to 2005 for doping. At this point, I'm not sure if people hate Armstrong more for cheating or for lying about cheating.

On the short list of things that nobody can tolerate, it's being lied to and cheated, and he pulled off both of them in the most unlikable fashion.

Since 2010, there have been 50 PED suspensions in the NFL. The most recent culprit is defensive end Bruce Irvin, who will miss the first four games of the 2013 season. Irvin is the fifth player from the Seattle Seahawks (SeAdderall Seahawks?) since 2011 to be suspended under terms of the performance-enhancing drug policy, the most by any team during that span. (This total does not include Seattle's All-Pro defensive back Richard Sherman's 2012 suspension, which was overturned on an appeal.)

What's interesting, though, is that unlike in baseball and cycling, football fans don't really seem to care. Irvin had more sacks than any other rookie in 2012, yet you don't hear a single person discounting that on account of PEDs.

What did Irvin and these other players take? Well, we can't ever really know for sure because the NFL's collective-bargaining agreement gives players the opportunity to lie about what they got busted for. The league is not allowed to say what drug a player took, which is one reason why Adderall, a prescription medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has become the go-to explanation for players who have been suspended for PEDs.

It seems highly unlikely that so many players are taking Adderall for marathon LSAT study sessions, and much more likely that they're saying they used Adderall because it doesn't have the stigma that other PEDs in sports culture do. (For the record: The NFL will let players take Adderall if they determine it's for medical reasons.)

This lack of transparency in the testing process is disconcerting, and to complicate matters even more, the NFL does not test for human growth hormone (the players' union won't allow it). All of this challenges our perception of this sport and its accomplishments, casting a hazy cloud over things such as Adrian Peterson coming back from shredding his ACL and MCL and rushing for more than 2,000 yards and winning MVP in the span of a year.

Are football accomplishments impervious to diminishment, where not even a thing such as PEDs would make us think about putting an asterisk next to Peterson's historic 2012 season? Why is it that people care so much about PEDs in sports like cycling and baseball but not football? I mean, are we seriously pretending PEDs in the NFL aren't obvious, like we didn't already go through this with these other sports?

I just want to know, once and for all, is using PEDs cheating or not? And how can head injuries be such a hot-button topic, but not PEDs?

Nobody in the NFL seems to be taking this issue very seriously. Not the players, not the coaches, not the league officials. It's all very hush-hush. But that's not an excuse anymore. Not after what's happened in baseball and cycling. If this comes crashing down, nobody can say they were surprised, like they didn't see this coming.

Chad Pemberton is a Marshall University graduate who follows the NFL and is writing about it for The Herald-Dispatch. Email him at pemberton@herald-dispatch.com.