Thursday, June 04, 2009

Rodney Harrison, Part No. 2

Manny Ramirez violated baseball's drug policies, and was suspended for one-third of a season. The world went nuts. The sports pages treated the story the way the Vienna papers covered the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Manny was on magazine covers. The story made all three network news broadcasts, and ESPN simply melted down in nonstop news ecstasy. Approximately 9,762,573 commentaries were printed, broadcast or posted on how this scandal would affect Ramirez's eligibility for the Hall of Fame.

Two years earlier, Rodney Harrison violated football's drug policies, and was suspended for one-fourth of a season. The world yawned. It was reasonably big news in Boston, but west of the Connecticut River it raised barely a ripple. I don't think it was the lead item on that night's Sportscenter. When composing my earlier post on Harrison, his suspension never crossed my mind.

Harrison is a longshot for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That's because he's a safety, which is a position the selection committee has never really liked much. It took Paul Krause years to get in, and he only had the career interception record. But Harrison's suspension won't matter to the committee. They made their statement on drugs when they elected Lawrence Taylor.

What explains this discrepancy? It is a certifiable fact that the use of performance-enhancing drugs by players is an infinitely bigger deal to the baseball community (fans and journalists) than it is to the equivalent football community. This is especially weird because the vast majority of the members of both communities are the SAME PEOPLE! Most fans follow both sports. Most journalists/commentators cover them both, too.

Part of the discrepancy stems from how the NFL institutionalized its drug-testing and punishment policies long before baseball did. Make a law about something, and it becomes routinized. Guys do the crime, then do the time, and the world keeps turning. Baseball waited until it was obvious even to Congressmen that something was going on before addressing PEDs. Waiting until a problem becomes a crisis is a recurring theme of baseball history.

Part of the discrepancy stems from how PEDs changed baseball in a way they didn't change football. Barry Bonds made the game look foolishly easy. He distorted it. Football players have always been much larger and stronger than the average man, decades before steroids were invented as a drug. If players used artificial means to be big and strong, it didn't change the sport in a recognizable way. If some bioengineer creates a substance that'd let Tom Brady throw 100 TD passes in a season, I daresay there'd be talk.

I'm tempted to say that part of the discrepancy is because there's something about baseball that turns its followers prematurely 75 years of age, but that would just be mean,

The main reason, I think, PEDs elict so much more of an emotional reaction in baseball than in football stems from the nature of football itself. Football is a game of extreme violence and violence's child, pain. The dullest fan knows the players are putting themselves through an ordeal for his entertainment. It would only be human nature for outsiders to be more tolerant of players using artificial means to help endure the ordeal.

Our national drug irrationality stems from the fear that Drugs Are Bad For You. They wreck minds and bodies in frightening and (more relevantly) unfamiliar ways. The medical hazards of PED use are real enough, at least for massive steroid abuse they are. But those hazards look rather tame when applied to a pro football player. There's no PED that poses a long-term health risk that approaches the danger of just playing the damn game. Pro football shortens lives. Pro football leaves men functional cripples. Pro football makes insurance companies not want to return your phone calls.

Knowing that, and as noted before, even the yahooieist fans do, if only subconsciously, football followers are less scared of PEDs than are baseball followers. The lack of fear allows the NFL to conduct its drug policies as a part of normal business rather than as some all-American moral crisis.

It is noteworthy that what DOES upset the football community is player misbehavior in the outside world. An act of first-degree chumpdom such as Plaxico Burress' self-inflicted gunshot wound propelled him to unemployment, as did the strip-joint related knuckleheadedness of Adam Jones. Football fans are upset by the possibility that men they know to have the capacity for boundless violence might use that violence in the world where THEY reside.

Which all things considered is a much more sensible worry than fretting over Bonds' hat size.


At 4:26 PM, Blogger MyManMisterC said...

Did you know Rodney Harrison goes to the referee's training camps during the off seasons?


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