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.