SBJ/June 17 - 23, 2002/Opinion

NFL winning its war on drugs

A story that didn't make it above the fold in most sports pages in recent weeks spoke volumes about the state of labor-management relations in the league it concerned. It also said a lot about that topic in a league it didn't touch.

The subject was ephedrine, a plant derivative that's used in products that promise weight loss and an energy gain but has been linked to strokes, seizures and heartbeat irregularities. The league was the National Football League, which put it on its list of banned substances and said it would begin to test for it on July 1.

What made the move notable was the lack of fuss that surrounded it. The NFL and its players association sat down quietly, examined the evidence and signed off on the test together. Ephedrine thus became one of a number of potentially dangerous performance enhancers — including steroids in their various forms — that the league and union agree pro footballers shouldn't take.

In both substance and tenor, the contrast between the NFL's action and the way Major League Baseball goes about its business couldn't have been sharper. MLB has no drug policy worth the name, and, until recently, denied the need for one despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

Now, finally embarrassed by the shriek of blown whistles, the baseball owners have put a steroids-testing plan on the table in their current talks with the players union, but the union, ever riveted on the dollar sign, has been noncommittal in response. Few things are settled without bloodshed on baseball's labor front, and there's no reason to believe this will be different.

The fact that drug testing is unpleasant all around makes football's action more impressive. For the organization doing the administering, it's expensive, costing between $400 and $450 a test from a fixed site such as a training camp, and more if the testers must travel to obtain samples. For those on the receiving end, it's intrusive and demeaning, a reversal of the "innocent until proven guilty" tenet of our legal system. Few who are asked to fill the cup do so gladly.

The procedure gets worse if it works the way it's supposed to and snares rules violators. The common response of the athlete who's been busted is to cry "Who, me?" and shift the blame by attacking the test and the testers. His sense of grievance is likely to be heightened by the knowledge that some of his fellows are getting away with taking the same things he is. Players' use of masking agents and their timing of doses to avoid predictable exams make only the most relentless programs wholly effective. The jocks' joke, if you can call it that, is that only dopes get caught doping.

Still, in big-time sports today, every athlete must decide whether to make the Faustian bargain of risking his or her long-term health for the here-now boost provided by steroids or stimulants. That choice tilts the playing field, which is why the organizations that oversee the games must spell out what's prohibited and make an effort at enforcement, however imperfect. With its "don't ask, don't tell" stance on performance enhancers, baseball encourages its players to opt unwisely and leaves the course of its enterprise to their whims. The NFL's program may have holes, but the league deserves credit for drawing a line and extending it when warranted.

Special applause should go to Gene Upshaw, the NFL Players Association head, whose stance on the ephedrine ban made him a target for the short-sighted in his membership. He acknowledged the gripes but stood by his decision.

"It's time to be proactive in this area," he said. "It may not be popular with some players, but it's needed because we don't know enough about these substances, and we have to be careful."

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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