Saturday, September 01, 2007

Bioengineering is in the Dictionary for a Reason

Rodney Harrison, crew chief of the New England Patriots' number 37 Human Being of Tomorrow, has been suspended for four games by the NFL for illegal engine modifications.

Big news? Sure. Some kind of moral issue for Harrison and the rest of us? Only if we're stupid, which rest assured most people will be.

I heard the news of Harrison's suspension for purchasing human growth hormone last night, and my mind immediate flashed NASCAR. He got busted for cheating with his machine-his body. He did the crime, he'll do the time. There is no, repeat, no reason to think the less of Harrison as a football player or as a person (I have the deepest respect for him in both cases). Sports will never make any progress towards handling the issue of performance enhancing drugs until it separates it from society's hypocritical, twisted posturing on "drugs" in general.

NASCAR is our ticket to rationality. Machines are easier to monitor than people, so no sport is more strictly regulated to maintain competitive balance within the rules, and penalties are strict-on certain individuals. At the same time, no sport has more cheating. It's assumed those car-lovin' good old boys in the garage are going to get under the hood and tinker in the attempt to be the fastest. Those who get caught get punished. But, and here's the important part, there's no moral stigma attached. Once time is served, the miscreants return as members in good standing of the NASCAR community.

Not so long ago this year, the 24 and 48 cars of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, two of NASCAR's biggest stars, failed inspection. The crew chiefs for each team were banned from the track for six races, one-sixth of the season, a penalty roughly equivalent to Harrison's. Crew chief also is a significantly more important position on a stock car team than strong safety is on a football team.

Gordon and Johnson kept racing quite successfully. The two exiles watched their backups on television. They've been back for awhile now. Their sordid crime garnered so much publicity, I can't remember their names.

Spare yourself the moral anguish, Patriots fans. Don't bother wailing, "Say it ain't so, Rod," See Harrison's crime for what it was, tinkering. He cheated, because the rewards for doing so far outweighed any possible penalty.

Harrison's body is wearing out. That's what happens to the big hitters. It's an ignored fact of football that its collisions damage both vehicles, I mean, players. He's missed a lot of games the past two seasons, and he's been trying to heal. One of the sport's prime directives is-get and stay healthy. You can't make the club in the tub. At Harrison's age, another season with medical down time could equal the Pats' equivalent of a gold watch, guest spots on Channel 4 and WEEI.

In the process of recovery from injury, people often take drugs, which they call medicine. Since childhood, football players, almost always recovering from something, have taken more medicine than most. Human growth hormone is a drug that in de facto clinical trials conducted in the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse, has shown dramatic results in keeping an older athlete's body healthy.

So, Harrison's choices were as follows: 1. Don't take HGH, trust to mother nature and NFL-approved medicine, and see what happens. 2. Do take HGH and improve the chances of returning to the game he loves and at which he makes millions of dollars per year, running the risk of a four-game suspension. Dear readers, be honest. Doesn't number two look like the logical choice in any cost-benefit analysis?

NASCAR doesn't judge its cheaters morally because it recognizes the fundamental contradiction of its rules. The whole idea of the sport is to see who has the fastest car. Mandating just what can and can't be done to build the fastest car may be necessary for entertaining competition, but it goes against what the competitors are trying to in the first place nature, so cheating will always take place.

Football's no different. The bedrock truth of pro ball is that if you're not a quarterback or a kicker, playing in the NFL takes years off your life, and is a stone guarantee to leave permanent medical damage. Those are cold facts that the players accept of their own volition. Teams do everything they can to encourage and enable (to put it gently) players to show up ready to go work on Sunday. In the course of that, players lot of stuff in their bodies that they don't understand.

To expect players to then say, "oh no, that drug over there that I don't understand, but that I know will help me get better and perform better, I won't take that. Some asshole congressman might think worse of football if I did" is insane. Do the math. A possible loss of 25 percent of annual income versus a more-possible loss of 100 percent. If all NFL players are cheating, they've got logic on their side.

Back to NASCAR. Besides suspending the Gordon and Johnson's crew chiefs, the two teams were docked x-amount of Nextel Cup championship points. They lost more than Tony Stewart did for saying "bullshit" on ESPN, but not too much more. It was an implied threat that the punishment could be more severe for the next infraction.

Fair enough. To think Gordon and Johnson didn't know what their crews did to those cars is to think they are both stupid and suicidal, which they ain't. But it also points out that sports have the means to eliminate cheating, and don't use it because it would upset the economic applecart.

If NASCAR really wanted to keep naughty hands off the Car of Tomorrow, they could have suspended Gordon and Johnson's CARS from competing in a race or two. That would be a penalty harsh enough to deter future wrench-bearing crooks. And it'd never, ever happen for obvious reasons. Hours after the announcement, this country would be treated to the rare spectacle of a lynch mob hundreds of thousands strong led by the CEO of General Motors.

Same thing with the NFL. As long as the league punishes individual cheaters, it won't alter the odds that make cheating attractive in the first place, and the culture that encourages turning a blind eye to what players do during the mysterious "off-season rehab" process. Collective punishment might.

In the final analysis, Harrison took HGH to get back on the field and help the Patriots win. So suppose the punishment involved not Harrison missing four games, but the New England franchise starting the season 0-1, forfeiting the opener to the Jets. I'd say that punishment would be the last drug-related violation of league rules for the 2007 season. Teams, from owner down to videotape editors, would make monitoring players' medical behavior their first order of business 24/7.

Merely to write that proposal down shows how fanciful it is. Talk about never happen. I'm fond of Robert Kraft, and wouldn't want to see HIS health endangered by a blood pressure spike to about 10,000 over 6000. The ensuing litigation would last until one of Jenna Bush's grandchildren was on the Supreme Court.

Football is a wonderful game. I loved playing it (which I did very poorly), I love watching it, I loved covering it. But it's a game and multi-billion dollar business built on ignoring its most self-evident truth. It's dangerous. It's PROVEN danger is worse than anything the anti-drug hysterics have claimed about HGH.

Harrison has ignored that danger of his own free will all his life. Or rather, he's accepted it. At the infinitely less intense moral level, so have I.

Therefore, there's one thing I won't do in response to Harrison's choice to accept the risks, financial and otherwise, of using HGH. I won't judge him for it. And if you like football, neither should you.

In all honesty, we can't.


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