On Super Bowl Sunday, the day when fans and the media prepare for the biggest game in all of American sports, I came across an unexamined issue with implications beyond football. This year, what caught my eye was an NFL Network segment dedicated to New England Patriots’ wide receiver Julian Edelman, this year’s Super Bowl MVP.
The piece focused on the influence Edelman’s father had on his son’s professional football career. At one point, the narrator mentioned how Edelman’s father helped him in his comeback from missing the 2017 season with a torn ACL.
However, in describing Edelman’s return to the field, the narrator barely touched on Edelman’s absence from the first four games of 2018 due to a performance-enhancing drugs suspension.
The instance of the narrator glancing over Edelman’s mistake reveals a bigger issue in sports culture and media coverage in regards to athletes’ suspensions for using steroids across different sports.
In Major League Baseball, a first-time offender like Edelman would have taken a significant hit to his reputation from fans and media. Ever since the end of the infamous “steroid era” in baseball, which spanned from the late 1980s to the mid 2000s, players caught cheating with performance-enhancing drugs have been vilified, an overcompensation for the ignorance people gave to cheaters during this time.
Because this two-decade stretch tarnished the MLB and its record books, the league now keeps a strict drug policy to keep steroids out of baseball. While first-time suspensions in the NFL and NBA are set at one quarter of the season, MLB penalizes its players for half a season.
However, the issue of unfairness lies more in the response sports fans have to performance-enhancing drugs rather than the drug-regulation rules themselves.
New York Mets second baseman Robinson Cano, an eight-time All-Star, tested positive for a banned substance last season while playing for the Seattle Mariners. This was his first performance-enhancing drug offense. For Cano, who is one of the best offensive second basemen to ever play the game, the loudest conversation has centered on his drug suspension and how it tarnishes his career and potentially his candidacy for the hall of fame.
In football, stars such as Edelman, Los Angeles Chargers All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis and Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram have all served suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs.
However their rule breaking becomes not the first, but rather the last talking point amongst football circles. Networks — the NFL Network included — barely mention a petty doping offense, causing fans to often forget that their favorite players were suspended for performance-enhancing drugs.
For those fans who do remember, most could care less if the player missed four games as long as their team wins. Once they return, the player receives the same love as before, just as in the case of Edelman.
The basketball world takes this careless approach to another level. While not many players test positive for steroids, “NBA fans don’t really care,” Spencer Lund wrote in Complex. Aside from the faces of the league, fans and media members are almost oblivious when a player misses 20 games due to performance-enhancing drugs.
Consider the case of Memphis Grizzlies two-time all-star center Joakim Noah, an 11-year veteran in the NBA. Noah tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2017 while on the New York Knicks. Yet, the media spent far less time publicizing his cheating than the issues he had with management that kept him out of all but seven games last season.
Now on the Grizzlies, who have been out of playoff contention for most of this season, Noah has received a chance to play and started a game for the first time in over two years. And instead of showing hate, the Memphis fans gave Noah a standing ovation. In the stands that evening, maybe only a fraction of the crowd even knew Noah had cheated.
The disconnect in all of this lies in the stigma steroids have in baseball but lack in the other major sports. Either fans, writers and reporters need to have more sympathy for baseball players who get suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, or the media should provide greater coverage about players in sports like football who cheat the rules.
The only fair and level playing field lies in a game where everyone follows the same rules. Cheaters should be punished. Maybe they should not be forever scorned, but their reputation should take a definite hit.
I hope the NFL Network can make another segment about Edelman’s mistake and sports fans outside of baseball can realize suspended players are not on the same field as everyone else, as we too often forget.