22 July 2013

We are all on drugs.

Well, you know it's the offseason, because this is the second straight post I've written with a baseball reference.

Ryan Braun got popped by MLB's drug czars today, though for what, we're still not exactly certain. (Sadly, Major League Baseball has refused to consider my recommendation that selling overpriced douchebag apparel be a suspendable offense. Won't even broach the subject with the players' union. Jerks.) Braun beat a 2012 drug rap on a technicality - lackluster urine handling - and his name appeared on the client list of a suspected PED peddler afterward. So baseball's powers took their circumstantial evidence to Braun and suggested that, hey, since the Brewers currently are the sort of team that might actually benefit from having Chorizo play left field for a spell, how about sitting out the rest of this season, and we'll call off the dogs? Braun accepted, and has released some vague statement about disappointing somebody because of something, and seriously, whatever, if you're invested in the outcome of Brewers games, you're doing this Milwaukee baseball thing all wrong, because you're supposed to be brownout drunk from the parking lot tailgate before the first pitch is thrown.

But today's announcement got me thinking: When was the last time there was a splashy suspension in the NHL for performance-enhancing substances? I found it odd that, in the sport whose fans and media obsess more about the duration and "correctness" of player discipline more than any other, I couldn't think of a single instance offhand. I certainly couldn't recall any Brendan Shanahan videos elaborating on a drug-related ban, though the concept does certainly offer possibilities for hilarity. ("As you can see in the video, the 10-cubic-centimeter syringe of Deca-Durabolin clearly enters the left buttock with intent, and leading with the point...") This curious absence made me wonder if the NHL, in fact, even has a controlled substance policy. After all, many sports fans are familiar with the NFL's 4-game ban for first-time offenders, MLB's firm 50 game/100 game/full ban policy (individual results may vary, apparently, as of 7/22/13), and the NBA's long-time best-selling DVD series, "Bill Walton Presents: Top 20 Doobie Blunders of the Season!"

"Why yes, wrapping my kush in aluminum foil should make clearing airport security a breeze! Good thinkin', me!"

As it turns out, the NHL does have a straightforward anti-drug policy in place. Players are given 20 games for a first offense, 60 for a second, and a "permanent" suspension for the third, with the option to apply for reinstatement after serving two years. The policy has only been in place since the post-lockout CBA (no, no, the other one, remember?) that took effect for the 2005-06 season. Enforcement of the drug rules, however, didn't begin until January 15, 2006, to, uh, give the players a fair head start, I guess? This meant that when Blue Jackets defenseman Bryan Berard tested positive during an Olympic evaluation camp in November of 2005, he was subject to a two-year ban from international play, but received no punishment from the league, since the test took place in the designated three-month "hey man, do your thing" window.

The first suspension under the NHL's performance-enhancing substance policy didn't occur until April of 2007, when 37-year-old Islanders defenseman Sean Hill received a 20-game ban for a first offense.

To date, the most recent suspension under the NHL's performance-enhancing substance policy occurred in April of 2007, when 37-year-old Islanders defenseman Sean Hill received a 20-game ban for a first offense.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the cleanest league in the history of professional sport. It turns out that creating a drug policy was wholly unnecessary; you see, no one is doing anything.

Sports fans have learned a lot about performance-enhancing drugs since the earliest big scandals of the '80s, when Lyle Alzado was apparently treating "North Dallas Forty" as some sort of bucket list. The notion of "take steroids, grow muscles" is overly simplistic and outdated. Thanks in large part to baseball, we now understand that drugs aren't merely about getting bigger and stronger; they're used to help build endurance, to help players train longer and harder, and recover more quickly from injuries. We also know that when an athlete is "on drugs", he or she isn't always "on" them. Performancing-enhancing substances are administered in cycles, according to a regimented schedule. This is done both to avoid counterproductive overdosing, and to help avoid detection of testing agencies.

Which is why it makes perfect sense that, when players are training and rehabilitating during the offseason, the NHL does absolutely zero drug testing.

There is also zero drug testing of players during the playoffs, a time when athletes most certainly would not be motivated on any sort of level to enhance conditioning, build endurance, or recover more quickly from injury.

In fact, the terms of the NHL's league policy, part of a collective bargaining agreement the league cancelled an entire season to achieve, dictate that a player can only be subjected to random testing twice during a given season. These tests can only occur within the regular season, and they can never, ever be administered on game days - pee in the cup and tie off the arm on the off-days only. Wouldn't want the testing to get in the way of players' strict gameday training schedules, after all.

Oh, and the NHL doesn't test at all for human growth hormone, which many believe has supplanted traditional steroids as the performance enhancer of choice. However, thanks to the latest lockout and resulting CBA, the league has officially made an ironclad commitment to form a "program committee" to "study the issue of HGH testing".

You know, at some point.

I have to admit, I'm not even fully certain of my own stance on drugs in professional sports. I certainly don't believe professional athletes should be granted an exemption from laws on prescription substances simply because of their chosen profession. However, the overly-simplistic narrative of "drugs are bad, punish the cheaters" so often fed by the leagues and media is tripe meant to please the sort of fan who really does believe the NFL is more committed than ever to player safety because Tom Brady and Ray Lewis did that commercial. While we all learned long ago that "everyone else is doing it" doesn't excuse behavior, in the hyper-competitive world of professional sport, the desire to take every possible advantage to maximize one's narrow career window has to be understandable. Plus, the only "cheaters" getting punished in any league are the ones foolish enough or sloppy enough to get caught at it, or unlucky enough to have their supplier of choice get its records leaked. Many will continue to engage in illicit consumption unimpeded, working to stay one step ahead of those seeking to defeat them, just as they do between the whistles.

And here we are, two years removed from the summer of Boogaard, Belak, and Rypien, and two decades removed from the reddest of red flags, and the NHL acts as if it's overseeing a group of choirboys who would never be motivated to partake in anything suspect as they happen to smash into each other night upon night for seven-figure paychecks. After all, there's no evidence to the contrary, is there?

The word you are looking for is "complicit".

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