PED Use in the NBA

Jeff Gross

Dave Deckard of Blazersedge.com answers a Mailbag question regarding PED use in the NBA.

Dave,

What are your thoughts on the prevalence of PED use in basketball? I know a critical eye has turned toward Adrian Peterson in the NFL with the thought that HGH was used to aid his miraculous recovery, but will the same thoughts be had about Kobe Bryant if he returns for the season opener? I mean at his age coming back from such an injury so fast is somewhat superhuman. While many TV pundits are satisfied calling his body as a pinnacle of modern personal training, I tend to believe that someone like Kobe is the kind of guy who'd do just about anything to stay in the game. Basketball's nearly non-existent testing policy furthers my suspicion.

Jon

I left the names of Adrian Peterson and Kobe Bryant in the question because people are honestly discussing those guys.  Pretending otherwise would be silly.  But in the absence of evidence--or at least a Barry Bonds level smoking fire--I don't feel comfortable myself associating any particular athlete with PED use.

Part of this stems from the importance of "innocent until proven guilty".  This isn't a court of law, but nowadays the court of public opinion is immediate and omnipresent.  If we don't have any guiding principles, anything we say measures equally as truth.  In this case there's an actual truth: either an athlete is using or he isn't.  Until we know, those other truths don't matter and can only cause harm, or at best fruitless argument.  When evidence connects and athlete to PED's then the two should be linked.  Until then, in my mind anyway, the athlete should be presumed clear.

But honestly, I'm less concerned about the athletes than I am about us.  Unsubstantiated accusations harm our enjoyment of sports.

Greatness is the main attraction of sports.  Witnessing the unusual and transcendent, experiencing things you could only dream of doing yourself, this is why you pay attention.  Take away that greatness (or at least the chance of it) and you're just watching a dude with a ball tossing at another dude with a stick.

The alternative to assuming an athlete is clean until proven otherwise is assuming that every great performance you see is tainted...that the transcendent moments in sport are fraudulent.  It would be hard to live in a world where every MVP was a presumed cheater...where the best one could hope to see was the worst of our nature.

If that's not actually happening we've torn the heart out of the game with our baseless suspicions.  If it is actually happening we probably should stop watching sports altogether.  If we're going to find a middle ground between the two, ground which allows us to keep watching and believing, a little willful innocence is required.  We have to trust that an individual great performance is untainted--true to the sport--until we're shown otherwise.  We have to hold onto that belief even though we know that PED's are an issue in general.  Either that or we have to quit watching.

Notice that I said our innocence must be "willful", not "willy-nilly".  In order to adopt this stance--that as fans/observers we're going to assume a player is clean in the absence of evidence to the contrary--we need assurance that sports are mostly PED-free.  We need to know that league officials are aware of the issue, that testing and appropriate penalties are in place, and that someone is watching our backs so we don't have to.

This assurance has become more important in recent years because it's now apparent that players will say anything when confronted with the question of PED's.  Even positive PED tests leave room for explanation.   An athlete's public statements provide the criteria by which we, as fans, judge the gravity of the offense...how comfortable we are with him and his sport after the PED use has come to light.  In the long run the worst damage perpetrated by PED-using players hasn't been rampant cheating, but rampant lying.  The guys with which we used to identify most (and whom we most need to trust) are now on the opposite side of the fence from us.

During certain eras in baseball and football PED use was so heavy that you almost wouldn't have known the difference save for inflated numbers and longer career primes.  PED's were a revelation at first but had the horde of offenders come clean we all could have shrugged our shoulders and said, "OK, well just clean it up."   Instead we got a litany of lies, robbing us of any ability to discern...lies to Congress, offenders swearing by the lives of mothers and children, you name it.  I give you an excerpt from MLB Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun's February, 2012 press conference after he tested positive for PED's (as it turned out, accurately) but escaped on a procedural issue:

I've tried to handle the entire situation with honor, with integrity, with class, with dignity and with professionalism because that's who I am and that's how I've always lived my life.

If I had done this intentionally or unintentionally, I'd be the first one to step up and say, ‘I did it.' By no means am I perfect, but if I've ever made any mistakes in my life I've taken responsibility for my actions. I truly believe in my heart, and I would bet my life, that this substance never entered my body at any point.

I've always had tremendous respect for the game of baseball, and part of the reason that I've kept quiet throughout the course of this ordeal, and part of the reason why I won't be able to get into all the details today, is to put the best interests of the game ahead of the best interests of myself...

I will continue to take the high road because that's who I am, and that's the way that I've lived my life. We won because the truth is on my side. The truth is always relevant, and at the end of the day the truth prevailed.

This was part of a 2000-word statement, all of it in similar vein, delivered while he was still juicing.

Clearly we've cross the line here. At this point we cannot trust a single word a player says.  Therefore we're forced to be suspicious and to demand a near-draconian testing and penalty system in order to invest in the sport.  Players, once our heroes, cannot aid us with our willful innocence anymore.  We're forced to carry it on our own and demand that league administrators watch our backs so we don't get taken by these guys.

The traditional party line in the NBA has been, "PED's don't help basketball players.  They need to be quick and agile, not muscle-bound weightlifters."  That assertion worked pretty well when we were less sophisticated about this topic.  Once upon a time "steroids" and "PED's" were interchangeable terms and the jacked-up behemoth served as the PED-offender archetype.  But consider:

  • We're now aware of dozens of ways to improve your body via chemistry that don't leave you looking like a comic-book superhero.  Baseball, football, and even professional wrestling have revealed lists of PED users, many of whom were among the smaller, quicker athletes in their respective organizations...not your stereotypical user.
  • We also know that PED's aid in more than just bulk.  Injury recovery, endurance (career and game-to-game), and efficiency also come into play.
  • With LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal (neither of whom I am accusing of PED use) sporting multiple rings we've seen that being bigger and stronger than everyone else at your position certainly doesn't hurt, even in basketball.

While our understanding of PED's has evolved in the last decade, the party line from the league has not.  We've gotten a truism and then silence.

NBA players make more money, on average, than any other professional athlete.  The NBA has fewer positions available per team than any of the other major sports, making the competition to take and hold those precious roster spots that much more intense.  The NBA, more than any other major sport, markets itself with highlight reels and the supreme heroics of individual superstars.

Given that environment and our knowledge of the scope of PED benefits, are we to assume that the NBA has remained pristine in this regard while Major League Baseball and the NFL are awash in the enhancement culture?  With no modern, independent testing policy in place--indeed, no official acknowledgement that this could even be an issue--are we to simply believe every player who says, "I don't do it" and every league official who says, "It wouldn't help"?

There's a difference between willful innocence and stupidity.

Again, the counterpart to willful innocence--the balance that permits it--is a vigilant league office, clear and efficient procedures.  We've got none of that.

So yes, even though our only alternative for now is to maintain that stance of innocence regarding any given individual player, we do so with the certainty that our innocence is being taken advantage of and will be broken eventually, probably in multiple cases.

PED's are not a new phenomenon.  In truth, it's probable that some of our dearly-held Trail Blazer heroes were enhancing their performances.  It would not surprise me a bit and it shouldn't surprise you either, let alone if modern super-athletes are doing it.

All of that said, the NBA is a business.  Because of the superstar-driven nature of its marketing and image plan, no league has less incentive to crack down on this issue, to risk dimming individual greatness in any way.  Denial and diversion make far more sense.  That's where the league is right now.  Testing is inadequate and outdated.  Priority?  To all appearances, back-burner.

The corrective to this from the fan/observer point of view is not bringing up Bryant or James and wondering if they're using PED's.  Ironically, that just provides more disincentive for the league to actually find out.  Instead the NBA fanbase needs to point a finger straight at the league office and ask, "Why are you not even acknowledging that this could be a problem and why in the world have you not established a testing and adjudicatory process at a high level, equaling or exceeding other major American sports leagues?"  Obstruction and denial should not cut it...not on this issue, not in today's culture.  We've been through this for more than a decade with MLB and the NFL.  All the dodges around credibility and accountability have been taken and closed.  It shouldn't take a decade to travel ground over which other leagues have paved a superhighway, especially when that road passes over the bones of the innocence of other fans just like us.

That's the huge question here, the elephant in the room.  It's not whether a given player is on the juice or not.  Some are, some aren't.  The question is why the league doesn't care to find out and whether that's really in alignment with the wishes, and best interests, of their fans.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

[Edit: Observers have brought to my attention that I let an incorrect statement slip through on the original printing of this article.  Due to technical difficulties I had to use a back-up draft and I failed to correct the sentence "no testing policy" to "no modern, independent testing policy".  The first statement is inaccurate.  The NBA tests for PED's in house using random urine tests.  The second statement is reflective of the truth as I see it.   Apologies for the error.]

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