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The NBA Can No Longer Ignore PEDs
Posted By Travis Heath On August 1, 2013 @ 3:00 pm In NBA | No Comments
Memories of the summer of 1998 still burn bright in my mind. That summer before leaving for college I recall going to the ballpark to watch Sammy Sosa rip baseballs into the cheap seats at Coors Field. It was mesmerizing. All of a sudden the sport of baseball, one I had enjoyed from time-to-time but never truly loved, was occupying a major chunk of my sports consciousness.
As the calendar turned to August and classes began, I checked on the homerun race everyday. I can vividly remember (pre-TIVO, kids) having to go to class when the Cardinals were playing on the day Mark McGwire tied Hank Aaron. I ran to the dorm room as soon as class concluded to find the following words written on the dry erase board on my door courtesy of my roommate: “Big Mac hit his 62nd dong.” I was frustrated I missed it but simultaneously giddy that it happened.
At the time, performance-enhancing drugs weren’t even on my radar. The term certainly hadn’t been popularized yet. Steroid use was often associated with Olympic sports or perhaps some football players of yesteryear who incurred fatal consequences such as Lyle Alzado. Perhaps I was naïve, but during that summer the idea that Sosa or McGwire might have been using PEDs never crossed my mind.
As it turned out, the show was too good to be true. There was an unscrupulous underbelly. Today the media often acts as if they knew it all along. In truth, one reason major portions of the media remains so mad about the PED scandal in baseball is because they too had the wool pulled clean over their eyes.
In the last decade, it has become all too common to utter PEDs and baseball in the same breath without giving it a second thought. Players in the NFL are routinely suspended for PED use. It is interesting to note that the result of baseball’s PED problems was congressional hearings whereas the biggest concern people seem to have with NFL players using PEDs is how the loss of that player to suspension may impact their fantasy football team.
During the early portion of what has become known as “The Steroid Era” in baseball it seems that no one even considered that this could be a problem in basketball. I remember having a casual conversation with Lamar Odom several years ago about PEDs on the heels of yet another accusation of use in baseball. He basically stated that it wouldn’t be conducive to performance for a basketball player to get big and bulky. I recall hearing that response and thinking to myself, “Well, that makes sense.” In fact, I remember having a momentary feeling of satisfaction that my first sports love didn’t have to worry about such nonsense.
Today, it is widely known that one of the primary advantages afforded by PEDs is faster recovery. This is something that would unquestionably be beneficial to a player on a team that might be, for example, playing in Los Angeles one night, arriving in the high altitude of Denver in the early morning hours, only to be heading to the arena again in about 12 hours.
Hedo Turkoglu was suspended 20 games last February after testing positive for the anabolic steroid methenolone. Interestingly, the news barely registered on the national sports Richter scale. This can be interpreted a variety of ways.
It is possible that most people don’t care because they simply don’t know who Turkoglu is. While he has been a solid player for stretches of his career, he is certainly not a character the casual fan is apt to see on television pitching the next must-have fast food meal deal or electronic gadget from a big box retailer.
Folks could also view this as an anomaly. Said differently, perhaps they view Turkoglu an exception to the rule that NBA players refrain from steroid use.
Of course, it could also be that most NBA fans are living in denial. Denying reality is one of the mind’s most primitive defense mechanisms yet one that we humans seem to engage in all too frequently.
Reality tells us athletes in virtually all sports are and have been using PEDs. Why would basketball be any exception? There are multiple reports that at least one NBA player was part of the Biogenesis scandal in Florida, the same one that is leading to multiple suspensions in baseball.
A devout NBA fan could simply dismiss the reports as hearsay, as so many did in baseball for many years. The more sophisticated thinker would likely posit that since Biogenesis whistle blower Porter Fischer has mentioned players from numerous sports, it is highly unlikely the NBA emerges from this whole mess unscathed.
If it turns out to be a lesser known player or group of players, it will likely not impact the NBA very much just as we saw with Turkoglu. But what happens when the first big-name NBA player is accused of using PEDs?
Imagine for a second, and remember this is pure speculation in an effort to encourage thought on the topic, that a superstar like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Dwight Howard is on that list. All of a sudden the NBA will be thrust into the PED spotlight.
It will likely begin with players denying any use. As we’ve learned from our friends in Major League Baseball, denials, no matter how emphatic, mean nothing in terms of truth value. Once the evidence reaches a critical mass, the player will take his suspension and offer a vague apology for his ambiguous “bad decisions” while never truly admitting to using. At this point, though, the damage is already done. As we’ve also learned from baseball, once star players are implicated the integrity of the game along with all of the accomplishments of the players who play it are now in question, fairly or unfairly.
The game might never be the same.
Reports have emerged that the NBA is planning to initiate HGH testing next season. While this will be a good PR move for the league, rest assured it has resisted implementing such testing for as long as possible. Like the NFL and other sports, expect players to have a window of time where they know they will be tested. Even with such warning, players are bound to get sloppy and get caught in various ways thereby creating a potential nightmare scenario for the NBA.
We won’t know how the public will truly view PED use in the NBA until the first big-name player is implicated. The worst-case scenario is that fans and the general public are as outraged as they have been about PED use in baseball. Sadly, the best-case scenario for the league is that the public takes the same approach they do with PED use in the NFL, which is to not care as long as the player performs when he returns from suspension.
There is no question players in the NBA are using PEDs, it’s simply a matter of how many. It is my hope the NBA will do the right thing as it implements its testing policy and rules with a heavy hand. It always makes me chuckle when people debate the best way to deter PED use. It’s obvious that some of these folks haven’t been involved in pro sports in any capacity because there’s only one way to truly deter the behavior of pro athletes: take their money… and take it all.
Suspending players for 40, 50 or 60 games really won’t do much since, as we’ve seen in baseball, they know they’ll get the rest of their fully guaranteed contract when they return from suspension. Think about it: if using PEDs puts a player at a level to get a max contract worth let’s say $120 million and the suspension takes $15 million of that he will still come out with a net of $105 million. That’s great business.
When people talk about the sanctity of the game and respect for those who came before them, the uncomfortable truth is that most players are concerned about money first and all of that other stuff second, if at all. These are things fans care about far more than players.
If a player tests positive for PEDs, his contract should be voided. Such a measure will instantly put a stop to most of the cheaters in every sport.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely the NBA or any other league will take such drastic action. Instead, it will do what other leagues have done, which is punish enough to make the general public believe it is being taken seriously. The players’ unions yield far too much power for such punishment to ever be instituted.
Whatever the NBA plans to do, it had better figure it out quickly. The era of PED innocence in the world’s second-most popular sport is racing toward a conclusion.
Baseball has burned me once before. I won’t be burned again. When the first big-name NBA player gets popped for PEDs I will shake my head in disappointment, but I sure as hell won’t be surprised.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.
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