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Performance Enhancing Drugs and the NBA

I want to broach a subject today that we haven't talked much about but that is becoming more prominent in overall discussion of the NBA:  the use of performance enhancing drugs.  There are a couple reasons I've been reticent to bring this up heretofore:

1.  The whole subject is infested with speculation and hearsay.  Every sports fan who's even casually followed the headlines in the last three years knows what performance enhancing drugs do.  We're smarter on this subject than we've ever been.  But not a one of us can conclusively identify a user before the fact.  We're reduced to piling on after the evidence has been found, whispering in corners otherwise.  When that whispering becomes audible it soon takes the character of a witch hunt.  We already have those going for league management and the refs.  We hardly need another one to occupy our time.  It's an unsatisfying way to approach the problem.  Tom Ziller had an excellent column a couple months ago on this exact subject.  It's well worth the read.

2.  Up until now I have pretty much believed the maxim that David Stern put forward in 2005, as quoted by Steroid Nation:

The sport of basketball emphasizes a specialized set of physical abilities - particularly quickness, agility and basketball skill - that are distinct from those required in a number of other sports. Accordingly, illicit substances that could assist athletes in strength sports (such as weightlifting and football), power sports (such as baseball), or endurance sports (such as cycling or marathon running), are not likely to be of benefit to NBA players.

However the Manny Ramirez situation opening up the subject yet again, combined with the NBA's policy still being lambasted most places as being weak, is causing me to reconsider the matter.  You won't find accusations against specific players here.  The intent is not to start a witch hunt.  But I am honestly wondering if performance enhancing drug use in the NBA is really as rare as we've assumed.

As far as I can ascertain there have only been four players officially suspended for PED use in the NBA:  Matt Geiger, Don McLean, Soumalia Samake, and Darius Miles.  You need a pretty good memory for obscure details to recognize any but the last name on that list.  I believe players have been suspended for peripheral substances linked with PED's but I don't have a list.  I'm comfortable saying the names on it are not huge. 

Does this make sense to you?

I think it's naïve in the extreme to believe that basically nobody has tried PED's in the history of the NBA.  I mean, come on.  Baseball players made fortunes and careers out of enhanced performance.  PED use has been an open secret in the NFL since time immemorial.  Do you really believe that nobody significant has attempted to see what enhancement would do in the NBA?  Ever?  Every big man worth their salt gets strong in this league fairly quickly.  And it's not just power forwards and centers anymore.  Small forwards and shooting guards are massively strong compared to their counterparts a couple generations ago.  Some point guards are as well.  Besides that, almost every player in existence has had to come back from injury.  You mean to tell me there haven't been more than four who are just a little weaker, who recover just a little more slowly than others, who have been tempted to accelerate the process and thereby to ensure millions for themselves?  That doesn't pass the smell test.

As the years have progressed and we've discovered more about the effects of PED's David Stern's famous quote has become less watertight as well.  The idea that everybody who takes PED's gets muscle-bound has been proven false.  In fact many of the guys suspended in the PED massacre in baseball were smaller, lighter players.  Even the bigger ones often remain fluid.  Stern also mentions only endurance track athletes, ignoring the fact that many sprinters have been suspended for PED use over the years.  He also fails to mention the injury recovery properties of these drugs.  Frankly I don't think we know what benefits or drawbacks PED's would have for NBA players.  Perhaps we don't know because nobody is taking them.  But ignorance is not the same as surety and I'm not willing to bet on that explanation.

I'm more inclined to believe we don't know much because this question hasn't been seriously asked yet.  I don't believe the league wants to know, at least not in a publicly verifiable way.  I don't believe owners or players want to wrestle with this issue in collective bargaining. You're not going to hear this lifted up by the Commissioner unless under duress.  You're not going to see the Player's Union cooperating to come up with a more comprehensive testing policy, especially when it comes to new substances like HGH, for which the league does not currently test.  (And by the way, we're educated enough now to know that just because the NBA doesn't have a steroid problem doesn't mean it's free of PED problems.)  There's no percentage for either party in that fight.  The smart money is on repeating the mantra that it just doesn't happen in this league and hoping everybody will accept that.

In fact there's serious disincentive for the league to address this issue.  Because there are far fewer players on an NBA team compared to MLB or the NFL, because of they way competition favors star players, and because they've marketed the sport as an individualistic endeavor the NBA is far more vulnerable to PED-induced disaster than are the NFL or even Major League Baseball. 

The NFL is marketed as a team sport.  That league lost three marquee quarterbacks--huge stars--under different circumstances in the last couple years.  Michael Vick went to jail.  Brett Favre became a lame duck on a new team (which I consider a loss of marquee status) and is now retired.  Tom Brady went down to injury last season.  All were duly noted and discussed.  None of them matter much as far as the overall popularity or integrity of the sport.  When the Falcons played the Packers it was still a full-fledged NFL game.  You go to see the Cowboys, not just Tony Romo.  That is the strength of the league.

Major League Baseball has had numerous future Hall-of-Famers--guys the entire last decade was build upon--implicated in PED controversy over the last couple years.  The sport is still doing well.  The texture is deep.  People go to see young players, to enjoy the ambience, to take in the tradition.  Clemens and Bonds and A-Rod are black eyes, but they're an era, not the sport.  Nobody threw in the towel because Manny Ramirez got suspended.  Nobody was even that surprised.

The foundation of the NBA is much narrower.  I'm going to give you three names here.  I am not implying that these players are taking PED's.  If you're going to quote me on this, at least do me the service of quoting me correctly.  Consider LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and Dwight Howard.  If those three guys were to be swept aside in any kind of controversy--just three players--what happens to the Eastern Conference?  It'd deader than a doornail, that's what.  At that point the entire conference has the collective buzz of a semi-sick mayfly.  The Eastern seaboard would simply go dark with regards to the NBA.  I'm going to give you one name in the West also:  Kobe Bryant.  If he goes down the Western Conference is left in shambles as far as the casual fan and the national stage.  The NBA can't afford to lose these players or have their image tarnished for any illicit reason.  They're not going to do anything to take that risk unless absolutely forced to.  And I'm pretty sure if forced they'd be shaking in their boots over just such a potential scenario...if not with these four players with their eventual successors.

Again, I am not imputing guilt to, nor casting aspersions on, any of those four players.  I am simply pointing out how thin the thread is upon which the league's image hangs compared to other sports.  Note also that I'm not impugning Hawks and Blazers fans for instance, nor supporters of other teams without the above-mentioned players.  I'd be perfectly happy with an Atlanta-Portland finals series.  The rest of the world wouldn't though, because that's not how we've been taught to view this league or the game in general.  At least if that series happened with the main stars being overcome by the upstart teams then the finalists would get the rub from having put down a full-strength Kobe and LeBron.  There must be something good about them then.  But if that matchup happened in the absence or diminishment of the league's most marketable stars it would immediately be dubbed the "Who Cares?" series by every national outlet imaginable.  Sportscasters everywhere would shake their heads and openly ponder whether there was any reason to watch NBA basketball anymore.  The whole scenario would be nothing short of a league-wide nightmare.

The NBA has brought itself to the point that it can't deal with this issue.  It can't take that risk with so many eggs in so few baskets.  Even were it firmly convinced that the prime stars are clean, even if the league office deemed there was only a 1 in 1000 chance anything would come of it, nobody's going to roll the dice if they don't have to.

That is why I'm firmly convinced that this league will be among the last to take definitive action on PED's and the actions it does take will be the minimum possible while still maintaining decency.  And in that light, given the prevalence of PED use in other professional sports, I think it's fair to ask these questions.

If you ask me if I think PED use is rampant in the NBA I will say that I don't think so, but I'm not certain.  If you ask me whether I trust the NBA to be vigilant against PED's or to take care of the problem if it already has one, I will say no.  If you ask me if the NBA could be more invested in protecting players rather than revealing them, I'd say there's considerable incentive for them to do so.  It's not so much that my suspicion is overwhelming, it's that my trust is thin.  I think that's justifiable given the environment.

It seems inconceivable that another league could travel the path of Major League Baseball.  But weighing all things in the balance, I fear it might make sense to the league to do just that.  I hope that's not the case.  I hope this really isn't an issue.  I'm just not sure and that bothers me.


--Dave (