04/29/2005: The steroid circus came to the NFL recently...
and, as William Saletan points out, Congress and the NFL, as usual, still don't get it...
The biggest difference between the baseball hearing and the football hearing is sheer size. For a batter, weight can be helpful. For an offensive lineman, it's decisive. One member of the committee asserts that two decades ago, only five NFL players weighed more than 300 pounds. Today, 350 players exceed that threshold. Some witnesses dispute the exact numbers, but nobody disputes the trend. The real debate is about what caused it. Some blame steroids. Tagliabue, Upshaw, and NFL medical adviser John Lombardo attribute it to other factors. And it's the other factors, not the steroids, that raise the creepiest questions about distorting the human body.
According to Tagliabue, Upshaw, and Lombardo, changes in football rules and strategy have made weight far more crucial than it used to be. Blocking has become sumo wrestling. Offensive linemen are selected for their bulk; therefore, defensive linemen are selected the same way. If steroids were to blame, these guys would be spectacularly muscular. They aren't. Many have 25 to 30 percent body fat, says Lombardo. I think of Leon Lett, the former Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman who was picked late in the draft but ended up making the roster, reportedly because the team kept feeding him steak and he kept putting on weight. But nowadays, according to Lombardo, players don't balloon past 300 pounds in the NFL. They already weigh that much in college.
Harold Henderson, the NFL's vice president for labor relations, tells the committee that in each year of high school, his son gained 13 pounds for football season and then lost it for wrestling season. On his college football team, at a steady height of 5 feet 8 inches, the young man went from 152 pounds to 165 to 180 to more than 200. Henderson proudly reports that his son did this without taking a "substance." It was all diet and weight training, he says. Tagliabue calls this an exemplary case of "perfectly clean" self-improvement.
This is what happens when you equate unnatural performance enhancement with drugs. You end up thinking that a kid who puts 33 percent more weight on the same frame is okay because he's "clean," and a sport that offers millions of dollars to guys carrying 90 pounds of fat is exonerated. You end up asking Waxman's question about the NFL's weight explosion: "Is this just a natural phenomenon, or is this the use of drugs?" Maybe it's neither. And maybe that's the problem.
Len on 04.29.05 @ 07:37 AM CST