Shawne Merriman led the NFL in sacks in 2006 with a total of 17 and a nationwide panel of writers and broadcasters voted him to the AP All-Pro team. This happened despite the fact that Merriman received a four-game suspension after he tested positive for steroids during the season.
But in the Teflon-coated world of the NFL, this hardly made news. Most reports of the All-Pro team contained one line, or less, mentioning Merriman’s steroid usage. Contrast this with the reception that Mark McGwire received in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame. Despite never failing a drug test, McGwire received only 128 out of a possible 545 votes.
Now, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a greater reward than the NFL All-Pro team, but it is very interesting that less than 25% of the writers felt that McGwire, a highly-suspected steroid user, deserved their votes but the majority of All-Pro voters had no problem honoring Merriman, a publicly-known steroid user.
Why is there a double-standard with steroid abuse between baseball and football players?
There’s not one simple answer to that question, but rather numerous contributing factors. Perhaps the biggest reason is that the NFL seems to be ahead of the curve on the steroid issue. Before it became a national story, the NFL put a testing program in place and basically announced it had fixed the problem, all evidence of 350-pound lineman running sub-5.0 second 40-yard dash times to the contrary be damned.
The NFL banned steroid use in 1983. It was able to get a testing program in place in 1987, thanks to the winning the strike that year by playing replacement games. The league added suspensions in 1989 and instituted year-round random testing in 1990.
Meanwhile, MLB did not address the steroid issue until 1991, when Commissioner Fay Vincent sent a memo to all of the clubs announcing it would be added to the league’s banned substance list. And there was no testing until after the 2002 season.
The NFL is able to put on a happy face about how it handled the steroid issue, claiming that players and management eagerly came to agreement on the issue. But Gary Plummer, a 15-year NFL veteran and later a broadcaster for the 49ers, said this about the controversy on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines”:
“The NFL had wanted us to make that a part of the collective bargaining agreement to agree to steroid testing. And you know, the Players’ Association, Gene Upshaw and the rest of them, were just vehemently against it.”
So, the NFL players opposed testing, just like MLB players, but their union was not strong enough to prevent it from happening. The NFL is then able to use this weakness and spin it into a public relations victory.
As they say on that beer commercial – BRILLIANT!
And MLB compounds the issue by appearing to be more interested in its own PR victory, rather than instituting a tough policy when it first gets testing.
But there’s more to the steroid issue than PR campaigns.
The public views football players as more disposable than baseball players. Football players have shorter careers, their pads create the illusion of comic-book characters rather than real people and their helmets obscure way more of their faces. If every NFL player was walking down the street outside of their uniforms, I would be lucky if I could recognize two dozen of them and those would be the game’s biggest stars. Meanwhile, I could identify over 100 MLB players. I wouldn’t be able to recognize Shawne Merriman in street clothes, but I would have no trouble identifying Garret Anderson, Todd Jones or Jose Valentin.
What’s the significance of the recognition factor? I believe it’s easier to create a disconnect in your mind when you don’t “know” the players involved. To me, Merriman is just #56 on the Chargers. I care more about teams winning and losing than what individual players do, especially defensive players who don’t impact fantasy leagues to the same extent as offensive stars.
And that leads nicely into the next subject – gambling. Football is the number one sport in America in large part because of how much money the public wagers on each game. Who cares if Merriman’s juicing – I’ve got $50 on San Diego minus three! The gambler isn’t worried about “is he or isn’t he”. If anything, he’s concerned that not enough players are using for him to cover his bet.
Also factoring into the double standard is that records and milestones mean more in baseball than they do in football. Most fans know that Hank Aaron is the all-time leader with 755 home runs and that Pete Rose is the all-time hits leader with 4,256. Meanwhile, most NFL fans would have a hard time giving the leader in an all-time category, much less his final total.
So, when a baseball player surpasses a certain milestone, it takes on greater significance. Football records – eh, not so much. McGwire passing the 500 home run mark is a huge thing. Contrast that with Keenan McCardell, who has received almost zero attention as he’s become one of the top 10 leading receivers of all time.
Because fans care about records and milestones, the people who reach those marks also hold significance. If McGwire cheated to reach 500 home runs, many would reason, that takes away the significance of Ted Williams or Willie McCovey reaching those same marks. If Keenan McCardell was found out to be a steroid user, would fans of Irving Fryar and Larry Centers be up in arms about it? No, probably not.
In baseball, players matter. In football, the team takes priority. The most prominent example of this is with the Cincinnati Bengals, who just had their ninth team member arrested since January 1, 2006. Most fans know that the Bengals have had problems with the law, and wished that their players acted better, but just kind of shrug their shoulders over the issue. Now, imagine if just one baseball player got arrested. Can you imagine the contempt that player would be held in by sports fans?
They call it a double standard because it’s twice as true.
The NFL just announced a new tougher policy on performance-enhancing drugs. That’s good news. What would be even better news would be increased penalties for using so that a player who used and failed a drug test, like Merriman, would not be deserving, or even eligible, for post-season awards.