America and apple pie, Duke and K-Ville, steroids and baseball. Mention steroids and most people think of baseball, Barry Bonds and the Mitchell Report. Few think of football. This makes sense; baseball is a stats game, and performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) jeopardize the integrity of cross-generational comparisons among players. But football is a physical game, in which enhanced performance results in huge health risks for the user and other players on the field. So while steroids’ effect on baseball bookkeeping gets the most media attention, steroids’ effect on football safety is my paramount concern.
Our football stars are modern-day gladiators. Our appetite for spectacle and seemingly inhuman displays of athleticism is insatiable. We see athletic records as temporary, just waiting to be broken. Fans pay for their seat, their beer and their parking, so is this really undeserved? On Oct. 7, 2012, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel lay on the turf of Arrowhead Stadium with a head injury that would remove him from the rest of the game. As he lay there, he heard cheers from his home fans. Disappointed with his recent performance, fans celebrated his injury.
When faced with such immense emphasis on outcome and performance, many NFL players use PEDs and, according to Allen Barra of The Atlantic, the league has never really cared. For student athletes, especially football players, this sets future expectations inhumanly high, and they react. An investigation by the Associated Press found rampant steroid use among NCAA athletes, and minimal enforcement. What’s more, drug policies differ by school, with Duke being on the strict end, suspending players for one year after a positive test. Compare this to UCLA, where athletes can fail three tests before facing suspension. This means players must decide between uncertain futures: one without PEDs, in which they may be outcompeted by artificially enhanced opponents, or one with PEDs, in which they may lose their ability to play because of their home school’s sanctions.
Costs spur much of this inequality, with small private programs competing with tax-funded state school programs. Don Catlin, an anti-doping supporter who spent years conducting the NCAA’s laboratory tests at UCLA, told ESPN that it would cost about $34,000 to test 85 football players—an entire team—for steroids twice a season. This translates to less than 0.5 percent of the $14 million average big-time football budget, but can be prohibitively expensive for smaller programs.
Unreliability of school self-enforcement is furthered because there are no incentives for a team or teammates to report a suspiciously high performing player—this is great news for the team, coaches and fans. In addition, Mary Wilfert, the NCAA’s associate director of health and safety, told ESPN that the NCAA could not mandate schools to provide uniform testing and sanctions.
This uneven testing distribution coupled with programs’ financial inequalities, begs for an unbiased solution that would hold all student athletes to the same standard. As a governing body, the NCAA technically holds dominion (the right to suspend programs, players, coaches, etc.) over all collegiate programs. However, Drug Free Sport, the privately held company that provides the NCAA with testing services, tested only 10,735 athletes during the 2010-2011 academic year. This represents a mere fraction of Division I and II athletes. These small numbers are due in part to the prohibitive expenses associated with a comprehensive testing panel.
With testing inconsistent, expensive and, according to a vice president of Drug Free Sport, usually focused on drugs with a potential for abuse, like marijuana, over PEDs, how can PED use be curbed? I challenge us to look at ourselves. We’ve created an environment for athletes where income and success is so closely linked with athletic performance that not taking PEDs endangers their future careers. This harms the players directly through the long-term effects of steroid use as well as indirectly through the force these drugs allow them to exert on each other. In baseball, this added muscle allows players to hit the ball harder, thus upsetting statisticians. In football, this added mass allows players to hit each other harder, in a sport already facing concussion-related lawsuits from thousands of past players.
Lead sports writers argue that drug testing will never catch up to the PED industry. I don’t doubt this, but I doubt hiding behind this fact. We must reevaluate our expectations of our athletes. Anyone in the public sphere is stripped of their humanness and boiled down to the traits we desire and thus have made profitable. But we can’t let high salaries, huge fan bases and intense rivalries reduce these players down to just stats, sports records and jersey numbers.
Stop it where it starts. College athletes don’t come to school to prostitute their bodies for our enjoyment. They do, however, dedicate much of their college experience to improving their bodies and honing their skills, all the while witnessing the expectations society places on professional athletes. Suddenly running 40 yards in under 4.5 seconds isn’t enough. Putting on 25 pounds of lean muscle in one year isn’t enough. Being human isn’t enough. The pressure of being objectified, idolized and well-paid by fans trickles down to the collegiate level, putting our peers at risk. We need to pressure the NCAA to better level the playing field and curb PED use. But in the meantime, may your expectations be human.
Travis Smith is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Travis on Twitter @jtsmith317.