Throughout the history of American sports, the media has played a crucial role in the evolution and development of every major professional and collegiate league. From the beginnings of baseball and football to the multi-billion dollar industry the National Football League is today, the inexorable rise of sport as a major part of the fabric of this country is due in large to the prevalence of media in its various forms. Without Red Barber, Frank Deford, ESPN or the recent growth of the sports blogosphere, the global superstars of today would be no more wealthy or famous than the local high school quarterback.
p. Along with that influence, however, comes a unique responsibility to help maintain and uphold the laws and codes of sport. While the respective head offices of each league are responsible for discipline, each commissioner can only do so much to police the respective sport. It then falls to the established media to act as an objective watchdog, both reporting and analyzing any possible transgressions. Without a doubt, journalistic pressure — specifically the ability to influence public opinion — is a leading arbiter of change in the sports world.
p Yet, in recent months, the media has been neglecting that duty with a glaring omission. In one of the most high-profile sports leagues in the world, one that receives more coverage than any other American sport, several of the game’s biggest stars have committed acts that run completely counter to the integrity of the national sporting scene. And the media has not raised a finger.
p. While the Michael Vick dogfighting case and the Bill Belichick Spygate affair have dominated national headlines, a much greater scourge has penetrated the NFL. The presence of performance-enhancing drugs among several of the league’s top stars should be enough to elicit scathing editorials from the press and harsh responses from the Commissioner’s office, much as it has in Major League Baseball and other sports, yet little has been said. Indeed, last year, even after being suspended for a steroid-related violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman still finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting with six first place votes.
p. The panel of voters? A collection of Associated Press sportswriters, a similar body to the one that denied Baseball Hall of Fame entry to former St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire for his performance-enhancing drug record. Hardly a consistent standard for what is possibly the biggest threat to the integrity of modern sports.
p. Merriman is not the only big name to test positive in recent years. In 2005, a 60 Minutes report revealed that three former Carolina Panthers players, including ex-Pro Bowlers Todd Steussie and Todd Sauerbrun, purchased testosterone and steroids from a South Carolina pharmacy. Later that year in a similar 60 Minutes segment, former NFL star linebacker Bill Romanowski admitted to purchasing and using steroids and Human Growth Hormone from the same Bay Area Laboratory Co-Op that was famously linked to a host of MLB players, including Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi.
p. Just this past month, the NFL suspended New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison for four games for an unspecified violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Clearly, these are not isolated cases, and while the NFL’s substance abuse policies are widely regarded as adequate, there is only so much the league can do to punish offenders while having to deal with the obstructionism of Gene Upshaw and the NFL Players Association.
p. In reality, the real punishment for known steroid offenders is not suspensions or fines, but being pilloried in the media. While a four-game suspension and a hefty fine (the NFL-mandated penalty for a first offense) represents a good deal of time lost for a star football player, it pales in comparison to the millions in lost endorsement deals that scornful newspaper reports and furious talk radio hosts can bring about, not to mention the eventual shutting of the gates of the NFL Hall of Fame. One need only look so far as the likes of Bonds, McGwire and Sammy Sosa for evidence of this.
p. The latter two were regarded, in their prime, to be among the greatest players ever to set foot on a field, putting up statistics that rank among the best of all time. Yet once evidence of their corruption emerged, nearly every one of their lucrative endorsement deals vanished, and their once-sterling records were regarded with derision and scorn. While the future reaction to the career of Barry Bonds remains to be seen, mainly due to the incredible magnitude of his accomplishments, it is doubtful that any of the three will ever be enshrined in Cooperstown.
p. The media continues to ignore the transgressions of the likes of Merriman and Harrison while simultaneously blasting the offenders of other sports. Consequently, as long as the penalties for cheating in the NFL remain relatively lenient, the benefits will far outweigh the consequences. For the sake of the NFL, the players and the fans, the media must end their tolerance of steroid cheats in football and send a clear message that any offenses will not be tolerated.
p. __E-mail Matt Poms at [email protected]__