Last week the National Football League announced suspensions for players who had violated the league’s substance-abuse policy. These suspensions included Shawne Merriman and Shaun Rogers, who both made the Pro-Bowl. Merriman was last year’s defensive rookie of the year.
Even though high-profile players as these have tested positive, this is being treated as a non-issue. The unrivaled popularity of the NFL for sports fans in the United States is the main reason why players like Merriman are given a pass and athletes in other sports face harsh public scrutiny. NFL players must be held to the same level of accountability as all other athletes and be put into the same category as all others who break the rules.
Merriman tested positive for Nandrolone, an anabolic steroid. He claims the substance was in a contaminated supplement that he had been taking for years. Merriman has now dropped his appeal of the suspension that he will begin serving this week.
This story is hardly believable, since the league only suspends players after their second failed test. The first failure is kept confidential, and the player secretly enters a substance-abuse program. The league gives all players a hotline number and a Web site they can go to check all supplements for banned ingredients. The NFL’s substance-abuse policy and list of banned substances are online through the NFL Player’s association at www.nflpa.org. The NFL also has a partnership with the National Science Foundation to test players’ over-the-counter supplements for banned substances at www.nsf.org. Like most athletes who test positive, Merriman denies any wrongdoing and blames the testing process itself.
Merriman will serve his suspension, and the whole thing will probably be forgotten.
Athletes in other sports who are surrounded by steroid speculation are not as fortunate. Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Marion Jones and Floyd Landis are all athletes that have either tested positive or are suspected of steroid use.
Bonds, Jones and Giambi were all implicated in a federal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory as steroid users. Bonds and Giambi both admitted to using BALCO steroids during grand jury testimony, according to San Francisco Chronicle report.
Jones failed to show up for a random drug test and has now been banned from international competition for four years. Landis had an irregular testosterone level during one stage of the 2006 Tour de France. All of them must deal with fans and sportswriters across the country demanding their records be removed and eligibility taken away.
There has been no public outcry to have Merriman’s records and awards taken, and most fans only want to know when he is coming back.
Bonds, Jones and Landis are all cases of particular interest. Bonds is quickly approaching Major League Baseball’s all-time home run record. Floyd Landis won one of the most popular bicycle races in the world. Marion Jones, once America’s sweetheart, won multiple gold medals at the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. One reason for such harsh public reaction may be that theses athletes threaten to take the place of some of the most heralded names in sports history. Merriman has been in the league less than two seasons, and perhaps, as his statistics pile up, so will criticism of his actions.
According to the Nielsen Ratings, 17.33 million people watched “Sunday Night Football” on CBS, while 16.28 million watched the series-clinching game five of the World Series. “Sunday Night Football” is just another game in the NFL season, but the World Series is the pinnacle of the Major League Baseball season. The NFL truly is America’s pastime, and other sports do not even come close in popularity.
The NFL has television deals that dwarf all other sports and generate more advertising revenue in one week than many sports do all year. ESPN and Fox combined spend less than $1 billion in a year to televise multiple MLB games every week through the long baseball season. ESPN alone spends $4 billion a year to essentially televise one football game per week, or 20 per year.
The craze over football is part of what will cloud fans’ judgment when they make a call in the case of Merriman. The bottom line is not whether he knowingly took the substance, but that he is guilty of violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
There is – of course – the possibility that the test was flawed, and Merriman should not be held responsible. Many cannot imagine why a 22-year-old athlete, with money on the table and his whole career in front of him, would take such a risk. Successful athletes should be aware of everything they put in their bodies.
Perhaps Merriman is smart enough to know not to jeopardize his career and livelihood for a competitive advantage. The fact that he has already tested positive twice says he isn’t.