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The Performance-Enhancing Dichotomy

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Double standard ... get it?When a baseball player takes steroids, it's much more damning than an NFL player doing the same exact thing. Andrew Sharp at SB Nation calls the difference an "illusion." Evan Mohl described it as "hypocritical." You may have your own single word.

For me, it's … the way it is. Okay, that's more than a single word. That's another necessary evil we'll have to endure.

Sharp's article caused me to pause. Do we really hold football and baseball players to different standards? One group plays 10 times as many games. But the other competes in 10 times as physical a sport. I suppose we could try and parse the situations comparing Shawne Merriman, Brian Cushing, and Todd Sauerbrun to Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens. Let's just run down the common threads and contrast the … um, strings.

Retroactive Damnation vs. Caught In The Act

The case study of Cushing's Defensive Rookie of the Year award brought out some odd reactions, didn't it? The Associated Press was so outraged after news of his suspension arose that they re-voted … but agreed upon the same answer. As strange as the do-over was, it certainly didn't create the kind of relative explosion as, say, Manny Ramirez or Rafael Palmeiro — supposed future Hall of Fame players — when they were caught.

Of course, Raffy's failed test was also five years ago, and almost the first of its kind. A year later, Shawne Merriman was caught. Ramirez's positive test was last year. And Cushing's results came out a few weeks ago. Chronologically the shock and disgust has waned with every new allegation.

But most of the outrage stemmed from situations where we found out the athletes did steroids years ago, instead of results from recent urine. Those previously chronic offenders are the ones we condemn, because we never got the chance to punish them and subsequently forgive them after they smashed "clean" home runs. The only consequence we can hand down — by we, I mean somebody else — is for baseball writers to democratically keep them out of the Hall of Fame for as long as possible.

Hitting vs. Hitting

We all want to see baseball players hit home runs and football players hit the other guy really hard. And these athletes are competitive, so they'll look for an edge wherever accessible. They're called "performance enhancing" drugs for a reason.

But the difference is this: home runs are sacrosanct feats in baseball, in our minds. Nobody in football really cares about NFL tackles except coaches. Hell, offensive linemen barely have stats. There is no SparkNotes method to measure how well they did compared to their peers, or even to their predecessors. Then again, that's not one of the football fan's many rituals.

It is, however, ever-present in the mind of a baseball fan. We want to compare Barry Bonds to Hank and the Babe. But we can't.

All-Stars vs. Superstars

Defensive standouts Julius Peppers, Shawne Merriman, and Brian Cushing are all Pro Bowl players. So is Sauerbrun, a punter. They're all considered among the best at their respective positions, but they're not the stars of football. It might be better to compare them to J.C. Romero and Rafael Betancourt, relief pitchers who were caught using PEDs. That would be the quarterback and maybe running back. Everyone else is simply another guy who helps. NFL franchise players have really not come under such suspicion (unless you're talking about rape and/or killing dogs).

Now, this is purely hypothetical and not intended to be accusatory or to arouse suspicion. But suppose that a small handful of Pro Bowl quarterbacks and 1,500-yard rushers were caught cheating in some collective manner. Maybe it's steroids. Maybe it's Teflon. Maybe it's some Dungeons & Dragons incantation that causes the opposing player to slow down within a five-foot radius. Hey, after all, more and more QBs are passing for more yards and touchdowns. News of a cheating epidemic would cast a shadow upon all those numbers in the last decade.

And then we'd have a pretty fair parallel between football and baseball. I'd wager the reaction would be the same as it was in baseball.

So maybe we don't think, "it's okay when football players take steroids." Instead we're probably saying, "it's a good thing no football players have gotten away with doing steroids." Because then we'd show 'em what a double standard really feels like.

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  • Tony

    I think it really breaks down to, as you said, the sacrosanct nature of baseball compared to the “freak show” element of football. People do care about tackles. They want to see the biggest, hardest hits possible. They just don’t care about the numbers or records in football at all.

  • Tony

    I might have missed this if you mentioned it but not only did Shawn Merriman not take a lot of heat over roids but he won the freakin’ comeback player of the year award…..for coming back from a steroid suspension.

  • http://www.thelayoffbeard.com/ Matt Sussman

    I don’t think that’s true. He made the Pro Bowl in 2006 the same year he served a 4-game suspension. Then in ’07 he tried to play through a serious injury after one game, had enough, and shut it down to have surgery. He hasn’t been the same since, and he hasn’t won any comeback awards.

    It’s entirely possible that his injury or maybe the PEDs wrecked his body and he’ll never be the same player again. We’ll never know. But what a career tailspin.