When word came down Brandon Browner could be facing a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, the natural reaction of 49ers fans was amusement. We know this is not the first time the Seattle Seahawks have faced issues related to substance abuse.
Last year, Browner and Richard Sherman, the two starting cornerbacks of the Seattle Seahawks, both faced 4-game suspensions for reportedly testing positive for a banned substance. At the time, multiple reports identified the substance as Adderall. Browner chose not to appeal the positive test and served his suspension. Sherman appealed the suspension and won on appeal. Sherman's appeal was based on errors in the chain of custody of his urine sample and that there were mistakes made by the tester.
We are hearing about more and more NFL players testing positive for Adderall. However, there is no test administered by the NFL to confirm it is Adderall. Rather, the drug test identifies what type of banned substance (e.g., anabolic steroid, amphetamine, and/or masking agent) was found in the system. Adderall is a brand name for one type of amphetamine. For example, if a player uses Adderall, the NFL's drug screenings don't register which particular drug a player took -- the results only show positive for amphetamines.
Amphetamines are not new to the NFL or major league sports. For decades, since the 1950's, many players used "greenies," an amphetamine, which masked pain and fatigue. It also increased alertness, reaction time and accelerated speed. Players quickly found alternative means to get the same effect.
49ers fans are quick to criticize players on the Seattle Seahawks squad. For Browner, a CFL free agent, and Sherman, a fifth round draft pick, to emerge out of nowhere -- as key parts of one of the best secondaries in the league was suspect. When both players tested positive for PEDs, it seemed to provide an explanation to these Cinderella stories.
The NFL, by virtue of a confidentiality provision in its contract with the NFLPA, never discloses the substance involved in a violation. If the public is alerted to a specific drug, i.e., Adderall, the information came by way of a leak or from the player's camp. Many believe players admit to using Adderall, because there is less of a stigma associated with it versus other performance enhancing drugs. Many speculate Adderall is the go-to excuse, but believe that in reality the player is likely abusing other PED's. Even if the NFL knows the results and knows the player is lying, it is prohibited from releasing that information. When it comes to the NFL, there is no transparency.
Does Adderall alone create an unfair advantage? It might appear obvious to many, but some have argued many players take it on a recreational basis and it is not used as a PED. While it is a possibility, the fact remains Adderall is a performance-enhancing drug. Amphetamines work from the same transmitter as cocaine, which makes players feel grandiose. Moreover, Adderall allows players the extraordinary ability to focus and concentrate. It also increases alertness. In any event, although the league has separate policies for recreational and performance-enhancing drugs, both are common in the professional sports.
I know many NFL fans are under the impression the league monitors players closely and only a select few are cheating. But, in reality, we only hear about the ones who are caught. The culture of professional sports has led to common use of steroids and other performance-enhancing agents.
For example, athletes receive corticosteroid injections (i.e. cortisone) at an absurd rate. Because of the side effects, doctors typically recommend no more than two injections per year. But, in the NFL, we know many of these athletes get injections like it is an aspirin. Nobody considers it cheating, because we know these injections and pain killers are the only way players are able to perform. We can justify it and it is the norm within the NFL.
Another huge benefit of performance enhancing drugs is recovery time. There are steroids that virtually eliminate the adverse effects of the bodies healing. Athletes are able to recover faster and the reason is there is a steroid for that.
The fact is football is far from a clean game. It is rife with questionable drug use. But, do we really care? Some of the greatest players to have played the game of football have admitted to the use of amphetamines. Are we going to go kick those players out of the Hall of Fame, even though those substances are illegal now? Are we going to go put some asterisk on their record? No.
Sherman has stated he believed 50% of the league uses Adderall. I cannot speak to the speculation, but I have to wonder what made him come up with such a high percentage. Performance enhancing drugs have been used by world class athletes for as long as people have competed. Athletes will go to extreme lengths to obtain any kind of advantage. There are noble athletes who strive to play clean, but there will always be those seeking an edge. Athletes are well versed in how to avoid positive tests; and, even if caught, athletes can dodge quite a few consequences with savvy appeals.
Many players in the NFL routinely fail drug tests, and fans just do not seem to care. That is, unless the player plays for or against the fans favorite team. There is a manufactured morality around PEDs, as if there is somehow some sort of good vs. evil.
I will not pretend the players on my team have some higher moral code than the rest of the league. There is one on our current roster (Eric Wright) who has tested positive on or about the same time Sherman and Browner were caught. But, he's on our team, so we rationalize it. Larry Grant tested positive for PEDs and was suspended after he became a free agent. He's no longer on our team, so we rationalize it.
Sure, I do not like the idea of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. But, I believe it is easy for fans to sit on our collective high horse and demand exciting, world-class performances week after week. We expect players to play hurt. We love to cheer on the recoveries that shatter the medical baseline -- but none of us can really explain some of these rapid recoveries. After all, we routinely point to medical advancement. What do you think it entails?
We soothe our couch potato consciences by insisting the game be pure and honest. At the same time, we marvel at players setting records and praise their abilities. We do not care how it's done, it is just amazing that it was done.
Fact is, athletes strap on helmets, knowing the equipment cannot guarantee protection from brain damage or paralysis. We still watch. We are fine with it. Fans of NASCAR watch drivers take corners at 200 mph inches away from other automobiles. We are fine with that, even when someone occasionally dies. All of us can identify something asinine in sports. Should steroids be any different? Obviously, steroids are bad for the players' health, But, when have we really ever cared about the health of these players?
None of us want to really know how athletes are able to play at a world class level, or play through injuries or recover rapidly from serious injury. It is like fast food. Do you really want to know what is in it? We only care that it is tasty. Likewise, we do not care how our players are able to do it. We just want the best possible starters out there week in and week out.
As we face the Seahawks this week, be prepared to see a lot of trash talk related to performance enhancing drugs. And, that is fine by me. But, just realize, the conversation of PED's is nothing more than trash talk. None of us really care what these athletes do to their health. We only care if it affects our team.