Saturday, November 29, 2008

It's a Sin - Sisu

The late Washington Post correspondent Mary McGrory once wrote: Baseball is what we were. Football is what we have become. She could not have known how right she may turn out to be. Today, as the MLB seeks to exorcise the asterisks that will forever stalk its record books, the NFL could be on the verge of its own BALCO moment.

After crossing for a franchise-record 54th career touchdown with a trademark rush against Green Bay on Monday night, New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAllister slowly walked back towards the sidelines, cradling the ball. While the crowd bellowed the Mississippi native’s name, Sean Payton, the Saints coach, met him with a lingering embrace.

Touching as the moment was, it is hardly in keeping with the way stat-happy Americans generally celebrate their sporting achievements. But then, McAllister was not in the mood for celebration. After eight seasons and a rollercoaster career with his one club, that touchdown is likely to be his closing contribution in front of the Saints faithful. And they might never have known.

The reason? A batch of spiked weight-loss pills.

McAllister is one of a group of players handed a four game suspension after testing positive for bumetanide, a loop diuretic used to relieve fluid retention by those suffering from congestive heart failure. This alone, while ethically questionable, is not enough to bother the testers, but its ability to flush traces of steroids out of an athlete’s system is.

The thing is, nobody believes McAllister intentionally took it. Not because of his reputation – born, raised and educated in Mississippi, a record-breaking college footballer who matured into a Pro Bowl player with the Saints, twice battling back from knee injuries to the starting line up, and founding his own kids’ charity and car dealership along the way – or even his understandable popularity.

McAllister was taking StarCaps a fairly poor excuse for a weight-loss pill. None of its listed ingredients appear on the NFL’s banned list, but it has now emerged that not all of the ingredients were listed – including that pesky bumenatide. Instead, the NFL’s anti-doping administration is in the dock, as it transpires that they had been aware of the supplement’s secret ingredient for two years. Dr. John Lombardo, the long-standing advisor on NFL steroid policy, apparently learnt that StarCaps had been spiked with bumetanide in late 2006.

However, fearing that other players testing positive for bumetanide would claim that they were taking StarCaps, even if they weren’t, he decided to keep it to himself. Which begs the question – has the NFL lost sight of the point of an anti-doping policy? How can they push for the banning substances on the grounds of protecting athletes, while knowingly allowing them to continue taking a banned medication in order to prevent others from finding a loophole to take something else?

The ethics of doping policies cannot be allowed to produce false positives. Once that happens, once you lose faith in the testers, the game is up.

David Cornwell, representing McAllister, told the league’s appeals committee last week, said: “If Dr. Lombardo had notified NFL players that StarCaps contained bumetanide, Deuce would have never used the product to lose weight.”

Despite all of this, McAllister is expected to lose his appeal. He faces four weeks without pay, the Saints – already denied Reggie Bush – are left without a recognised running back, as their hopes of making the play-offs fade. Worse still, McAllister’s contract will most likely be terminated at the end of the season to reduce the Saints’ payroll – his reward for eight years service, such is the nature of NFL salaries.

As a final insult, had the test result not been leaked, McAllister would have left with the indelible mark of drugs cheat against his name. The NFL are adamant that positive tests should remain unreported until the player has had the chance to appeal, in an effort to prevent innocent players facing unjustified suspicion tainting their careers. But the circumstances of a failed test also go unreported, as does the substance, leaving fans to think the worst.

"I'm just going to get ready to play Sunday," was all McAllister, resigned, could say on the matter. "I can't worry about what I can't control."

If this is what they have become, walking off for the last time, you’d keep the ball, too. Everything else, it seems, is there for the taking.


Mouth of the Mersey said...

A powerful case well made.

I used to be much more concerned about false positives or legitimate reasons for having negative tests than I am now, I guess because of the ludicrous excuses trotted out by cyclists like Frank Vandenbroucke and many others. But it's too easy to forget that athletes aren't pharmacistsand that the likelihood of a dedicated doper being caught out innocently is minimal (they are supervised by experts after all) but the chance of a non-doper taking the wrong pill is much higher. It's for that reason that I turn something of a blind and possibly hypocritical eye to SK Warne's indiscretion.

Good piece Sisu - hope to see you here in the future.

beyond the pale said...

When the front line argument for a return to "the old ways"(i.e. some small semblance of honesty in professional sports) necessarily but unfortunately retreats, as here and in most intelligent current discussions, from ethics to rules and legalities, all I hear behind the conscientious hand-wringing is the undeniable fact the battle is and long ago was lost. As one who has spent the better part of sixty years following, and at times writing about, American professional sports, I've lately given up that interest entirely as a bad habit. U.S. sports have gone down the tubes, Ace, Deuce and Trey along with them. Lamenting the lost past and attempting to retrieve it are two different things: the first an understandable act of mourning, the second an unfortunate lodging of head in sand in an age when the only way through to the money is by what was once regarded as dishonorable behavior.

zephirine said...

Well-written piece, thanks for posting here Sisu.

Anonymous said...

I also thought that was well-written and I enjoyed it.

My own bugbear about doping is the inconsistency in the levels of testing from sport to sport and country to country. The EPL is one of the least-tesed of the world's great leagues.


Allout said...

Nice piece - interesting and well-written. It would seem from what you write that Deuce should have reasonable grounds on appeal - plenty of cyclists have been "acquitted" in seemingly more straightforward cases over the years but these sort of cases are always heavily political.

I think there's a wider issue here though, namely that of the role of drugs in US sports. We know from the Senate inquiry that it is rife in baseball and it is an open secret that it is common in college sports, particularly American football.

Yet the standard punishment (in American football at least) seems to be 4 weeks suspension which is nothing compared to the 2 year suspension in most other sports. In a sport like American football, where strength is paramount, taking steroids (for example) can be argued to be a logical decision given the leniency of the punishment. Of course many will not take drugs on ethical grounds but there will be plenty who cynically go through a form of practical cost-benefit analysis in their own mind.

Re Deuce being cut next season would this not happent regardless of this case? It's commonplace for injury prone, high salaried veterans to be cut to make room under the salary cap - it's expected to happen to McNabb at Philly as well. Is Deuce not just too expensive now that Bush is the feature back?

sisu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sisu said...

Thank you for your comments, much appreciated.


The likelihood is that, despite the appeal, Deuce will have to serve the ban. If anything, the four-week suspension stance is probably what counts against him - the punishment hardly seems worth contesting, while overturning it would open a huge can of worms for the board.

Jamar Nesbit was called up on the same charge earlier in the season, served his time and successfully sued the StarCaps manufacturer. Grady Jackson of the Falcons is currently doing the same.

At the very least, it seems that this current case might have finally brought the case into the public eye. StarCaps have ceased trading and recalled all stock in circulation; Cornwell has called out Lombardo on his questionable actions; and the commission is - as far as I can find - still to reach a verdict. Should they face the facts, it'd be a very interesting case that would develop.

But judging by McAllister's reaction on Monday, he doesn't see himself returning to the Superdome. Yes, he probably expected the cut in four games' time, but that would have included two more home games and a proper send-off. Had it not been for the leak, he'd have left the team and the state under a darker cloud than he's currently stuck beneath.

@beyond the pale:

The battle may be long ago lost in some respects, but this is not a call for a return to 'the good ol' days', but a plea for doping officials not to lose track of the purpose of the policy.

Lombardo would have us believe that he withheld the info - for two years - to avoid handing the steroid users a ready-made get out clause.

StarCaps didn't produce a one-off spiked batch - bumetanide was a hidden but consistent ingredient, and there have been rumblings about it's 'magic' qualities for at least a year now. That makes it an over-the-counter weight-loss pill containing an unlisted, potent loop diuretic.

Lombardo didn't just leave NFL players in the dark as he intended, but the public at large. It is negligent on a number of levels.

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