The NFL offseason has seen a repeated uptick in the number of drug-related suspensions and investigations, ranging from Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell’s appeal to his four-game suspension to Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus’ failure to show up for his drug tests. Unsurprisingly, another chapter is being added to the saga in the wake of Al Jazeera’s December 2015 documentary alleging that several NFL players were involved with performance-enhancing drugs.
An undercover journalist created the controversial documentary after interviewing a pharmacist from Texas named Charlie Sly who stated he had been providing performance-enhancing drugs to NFL players. Former Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and Green Bay Packers linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers all were mentioned by Sly in the documentary. Former Packers linebacker Mike Neal, who is now a free agent, was also included in the film.
Since December, Sly has taken back everything he said in the documentary. This has slightly eased the strain on the four players, especially Manning, who recently retired and fully cooperated with the investigation. However, the NFL is taking the allegations seriously and has proceeded to investigate the report in full. In doing so, the league has approached the aforementioned players for interviews questioning them about their alleged usage of performance-enhancing drugs. As of this past Monday, none of the four players had met with the NFL, partially due to the fact that the NFL Players’ Association maintains the players do not have to meet with the league because Sly took back his claims.
Nonetheless, this past Monday, the NFL’s senior vice president for labor policy, Adolpho Birch III, sent a letter to the NFLPA stating that if Matthews, Peppers, Harrison and Neal did not cooperate with the league’s investigation by Aug. 25 then they would be indefinitely suspended beginning Aug. 26.
This investigation is merely the latest addition to the ongoing narrative pairing professional athletes and drugs, not to mention the NFL’s firm enforcement of its drug and conduct policies. This phenomenon has clearly had significant ramifications for these players’ careers, but what is not discussed enough is how this reflects on these athletes in the public eye.
A Gallup article published in 2015 indicated that since 2000, an average of 60 percent of Americans identify as sports fans. Sixty-two percent of sports fans have children under the age of 18 in their households. A study conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reported that famous athletes are tied for second as the people children admire most, only second to parents at 92 percent and tied with teachers at 72 percent. The study also wrote that 52 percent of those athletes have used or been involved with performance-enhancing drugs in some capacity.
Since the beginning of a child’s education, cheating is repeatedly condemned by parents, teachers and school administrators alike. When 72 percent of children see famous athletes as the second most important influence in their lives, what does the state of the NFL show them about how to conduct oneself with integrity and honesty? Does it teach them to abide by rules or cut corners? More importantly, do kids still look up to athletes who are letting down the league, their teammates and their fan base?
Commercials for NFL Play 60, a campaign encouraging children to be active for 60 minutes per day, juxtaposed with the ongoing issue of performance-enhancing drugs perfectly emulates the problems plaguing the NFL. The league is projecting an image of support, inspiration and encouragement for children from a variety of backgrounds. Meanwhile, some of those same athletes are using drugs as a form of recreation or to enhance their physical abilities when in the public eye more than ever before. Social media, players’ appearing in television shows and movies and athletes’ romantic involvement with other celebrities has cast a light on them that some have never experienced before. Think Nick Young and Iggy Azalea; Reggie Bush and Kim Kardashian; Jessica Simpson and Tony Romo. The list does go on and on.
To be clear, I am not arguing that all athletes are conducting themselves poorly, dating celebrities and hurting their personal lives and careers or even that the aforementioned four athletes have in fact been using performance-enhancing drugs. It would be inaccurate and unfair to state such things. But it is undeniable that this has become a huge issue, and it needs to be recognized as such not only by the league, but by the parents whose children believe that these athletes are some of the people they admire most in their lives.