Book Excerpt: 'American Public Hardly Blinks at Doping in Football'
Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football
By Matt Chaney
Four Walls Publishing 2009
Book excerpt posted January 11, 2010
The excerpt series for Spiral of Denial culminates in the weeks before Super Bowl 2010 with summaries and conclusions of the book released one year ago
Forget It: Fans, Most Media Don't Care
Football fans and media were incapable of facilitating change in the game. Americans would not protest or fall disinterested in football, unless drugs were removed and mere mortals made to compete. Fans and media were enticed by winning at all costs and drugged-up supermen to stage the play, spill blood. Americans wanted their football, revered cultural tradition, regardless the costs. “You’re talking about some powerful forces,” ex-49ers lineman Charlie Krueger said in 1989, speaking of football injuries and the abuse of pharmaceuticals. “The only people who can change this is the fan, and the fan doesn’t give a damn. The fans don’t care, as long as they get their game. The owners put out a product, and the people want that product.” In decades following Krueger’s comment, market demand for the NFL only ramped up.
During the 2000s, several popular sports enjoyed retail immunity for issues such as drugs, injuries, and thuggish behavior by athletes, including abuse against women and children. The American public hardly blinked over a succession of sports stars exposed for performance-enhancing drugs, other than to devour the sensational details. By the end of President George W. Bush's second term, a wealth of press coverage established that athletes relied on anabolic steroids, growth hormone, insulin, blood-boosting EPO, amphetamine and cousins, painkillers, and more to compete in football, baseball, track and field, cycling, and other sports. So-called isolated doping was rendered impossible, not only for sport but for the culture at-large.
Genuine outrage against doping athletes was not discernible. Grandstanding by politicians did not count nor did the booing of Barry Bonds. The mass popularity of sports continued to be measured in huge revenue and audience numbers. “Fan sensibilities have not been offended as much as they’ve been anesthetized,” wrote William C. Rhoden, New York Times.
Sports columnists critiqued public apathy over sports doping. Veteran sportswriter Art Spander did not detect “the slightest bit of interest” among fans. Another long-time scribe, Jim Donaldson, Providence Journal, wrote, “Foremost among the things I’ve learned in more than 30 years of covering sports is that when values are in competition with winning, values almost always lose.”
“If there was ever any doubt that athletes are made of Teflon, as long as they perform, the last few years have proved the point,” wrote Gwen Knapp, San Francisco Chronicle. “They can be charged with rape, exposed as dopers or accused of beating their wives by their own children over 911 calls, and their fans will rally behind them. Often, the adoration just grows stronger, because their heroes have been victimized by the media, or vindictive spouses, or calculating bimbos, or the French.”
“Baseball fans don’t care whether Bonds did or did not use steroids. They don’t care,” stressed Bob Kravitz, Indianapolis Star. “The things the media care about, the things Congress professes to care about, are of no concern to the multitudes who pay to watch Bonds hit baseballs.”
Football, observers noted, had it easier than baseball and individuals such as Bonds and Mark McGwire. “I’m not saying it’s wrong for baseball to come under attack,” said Mark Fainaru-Wada, investigative reporter and co-author of Game of Shadows. “I think the question is whether football’s gotten the attention it’s deserved.” Hank Steinbrenner, Yankees senior vice president, did not understand how football escaped doping scrutiny that dogged baseball. “I don’t like baseball being singled out,” Steinbrenner said. “Everybody that knows sport knows football is tailor-made for performance-enhancing drugs. I don’t know how they managed to skate by. It irritates me. Don’t tell me it’s not more prevalent. The number in football is at least twice as many. Look at the speed and size of those players.” Football fans did notice the game’s increasing sizes, but only to marvel. They preferred not to see anything amiss. “Steroid scandals? After the 2004 Carolina Panthers went to the Super Bowl, it was revealed that several of their players had taken steroids,” wrote Bruce Arthur, of The National Post in Canada. “But that became nothing more than a blip.”
“Nothing in sports seduces Americans the way the National Football League does,” wrote Michael Wilbon, Washington Post, continuing:
The games have become a national sporting prescription, able to divert attention from just about everything that ails athletic competition, from Barry Bonds to Tim Donaghy to Michael Vick. … If it seems as if the NFL is bigger, better, smarter and more relevant, that’s only because it is. People don’t want to hear, particularly, that a Rodney Harrison has been suspended for HGH, or that an assistant coach, Wade Wilson, has been suspended. If a baseball player uses a performance-enhancing substance, he’s a bum and a national disgrace; if a pro football player does it, he’s just trying to, you know, get an edge, be all that he can be.
“It’s a gladiator sport,” said Todd Boyd, sport sociologist at USC. “People may
give a certain amount of slack to football players because there’s this unspoken sense that, in order to play the game well, you need an edge. That’s what people want in a football player. Someone who’s crazy and mean.” Football players were “99.4 percent disposable,” surmised Adam Gold, blogger. “Other than the true superstar players and the guys that hang around for an extended period of time, the players are interchangeable and completely expendable.” Jim Souhan, Minneapolis Star Tribune, observed that “football combines two of the most powerful and popular aspects of modern American life: violence and TV.” Some football fans were not concerned enough to act against doping. Dave Pell, self-described “NFL addict,” wrote in an online post:
I don’t want to sound preachy here. But this is a game that is all about rage and violence. We are all sitting in front of the tube waiting for that perfect crushing and violent blow. And if we don’t get it there, we flip on the Playstation and direct animated versions of our favorite players to crash into each other.
Should players take steroids? Of course not. But pretending that the biggest health problem facing NFL players is roids is like holding hearings on the sport of boxing to determine if the corner stools are ergonomically correct.
Most fans wanted “good” football stories, the happy stuff, and media accommodated, following the Golden Press rule for making fans part of benign, trivial coverage. In turn, most media relished football and avoided stories about steroids and HGH. “Tailgating, and all the fanfare that goes with it, is one of the reasons I love college football,” wrote Lya Wodraska, the Salt Lake Tribune. “But enough about my thoughts; we at The Tribune want to know what yours are.” Wodraska continued:
How is it that one sport can have so many reasons for loving it? Is it the tailgating? All the hoopla that surrounds the sport like the school band, the raucous student sections or the pranks pulled before big rivalry games? Don’t forget that glorious run of bowl games at the end of the year. … There are personal elements, too, like family allegiances and that old college sweatshirt that is faded, stained and threadbare but that you just can’t bear to throw away. Doing so would seem like tossing away all those memories of post-game frat parties or countless Saturdays spent yelling at the TV.
Writing of the 2007 college team at Utah—where 1970s school officials distributed steroids to athletes and where contemporary teams competed in big-time college football, amid a wealth of evidence for systemic doping—Wodraska asserted that playing football for the Utes was “a refreshing ideal in today’s talk of steroids and contract holdouts, isn’t it?”
Some sportswriters were different, critics in media who saw social ramifications for over-indulgence in football mythology, but fans fired back. When the Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock called steroid users “victims” of drug-sodden sport systems, reader Craig Davis responded in a letter to the editor. “As it is plainly evident, a person is a victim only when acted upon by a force outside of his control…,” Davis wrote. “We don’t care about cheating drug users. Steroid users choose to use, and as such, we have no sympathy whatsoever for them.”
Whitlock, former college football player, had writer allies in empathy for juicing athletes—and in criticism for ostrich fans and media. “We live in a culture that artificially manufactures superheroes, while at the same time wants to be told quick morality tales. It has an insatiable appetite for both,” wrote author Laura Robinson, former Canadian rowing and cycling champion, for The Ottawa Citizen. Fans “must watch because they need men, who, thanks to performance-enhancing drugs are nearly as artificial as someone who comes from the planet of Krypton, to perform modern parables.” Fans demanded “their heroes,” said author David Wallechinsky. “They don’t want a drug scandal. They want to look the other way.”
Note: The author files many items beyond works cited for this summary passage of book
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Matt Chaney is a journalist, editor, teacher and publisher in Missouri. E-mail him at email@example.com. For more information about his book Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, visit the home page at www.fourwallspublishing.com.