By Jason Keidel
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Not even the Super Bowl is too Teflon to be poisoned by the toxic realities of performance-enhancing drugs. With a dearth of decent subplots this Sunday, A-Rod, Ray Ray, and Lance have commandeered the sports section. And with rampant foot-and-mouth maladies in New Orleans — from Joe Flacco’s “retarded” remark to Chris Culliver’s semantic, homophobic spasm — this year’s iteration of a feel-good story is the one where the player says nothing. A host on another radio station made a salient point: Why are members of one minority so intolerant of those in another minority?
But I digress…
I’ve been alive and lucid for about 37 of the 47 Super Bowls, and it’s hard to recall a game this big shrink in the shadow of peripheral stories. Unless you have historic or ironic gaffes — like Eugene Robinson winning Man of the Year while getting pinched in a prostitution sting, or Barrett Robins and Stanley Wilson going Charlie Sheen before the biggest game of their lives — the game always was the story.
Between Alex Rodriguez’s turnstile at the juice bar and Ray Lewis allegedly nibbling on antlers, the PED debate hasn’t faded with increased and improved testing. This is far more than a sideshow with subtitles to the title game. Drugs are here to stay. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, when the drugs du jour were weed and coke, none of us predicted that a banned substance would enhance anyone’s performance. PEDs were the domain of East German swimmers, women with thighs like Earl Campbell and guns like Shannon Sharpe.
But this is what sports have become in the age of absurdly swollen and swift hardbodies and the muscular media covering them. I’ve always preferred the campy, rags-to-riches narrative that always flanks a football team. I prefer when some kid gets cut six times before the seventh team takes a final shot at him and he becomes Kurt Warner or James Harrison.
And while there certainly are obscure players who rise from some random cornfield or forgotten ghetto to raise the Lombardi Trophy, it feels like each new player is programmed, preordained and synthetic. Lewis returns from a four-month injury in four weeks — at age 37! — and Adrian Peterson returns from a shredded knee in six months and runs better than he did before he went under the knife. No matter how big or bionic these players are, they’re still human.
Or are they?
This week a caller told Mike Francesa that the problem with punishing cheaters is that it doesn’t address their enablers: their employers. Fine the team, he said. Dock the player’s paycheck and wrench a few draft picks from the franchise, and then you’ll see a more earnest and honest change to the system.
Sounds right. Right?
The problem with the proposed group hug is that no one is served by severe change. Provided that no one gets busted, drugs are great for business.
The NFL Players Association won’t want anything that resembles more intrusive inspection, and will use collective bargaining to block it, dealing a deck of civil liberties cards. The owners will stay way clear of culpability, declaring that they can’t wrap a leash around pro athletes and grown men. And the commissioner in any sport, no matter his gravitas — from David Stern to Pete Rozelle — is still a shill for ownership.
Frankly, no one genuinely wants the cheating to end. MLB owners rode the red capes of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa all the way to the cashier. And even the players who bring clean veins to the game have been alarmingly mute on the matter. Why? Because everyone got paid. When the median salary spikes, even mediocre players benefit.
The greatest sin in the inverted moral world of steroids is getting caught. The main reason that the Yankees are jamming the eject button is because A-Rod can’t produce anymore. If this were 2007, Brian Cashman would be on the next Learjet to Miami, ready to massage A-Rod off the ledge, texting Hank and Hal updates every five minutes. But when you go 3-for-30 in the playoffs and are due over $100 million over the next four years, you’re suddenly less huggable. One of the best features of pro sports is the authenticity of emotion — the stark, dark honesty and the thin line between today’s hero and tomorrow’s zero. Few folks in human history have surfed the mutating waves of celebrity like Rodriguez.
This morning, a caller waxed pharmaceutical to Tony Paige about the medical virtues of HGH. No doubt a disguised A-Rod apologist, he said that some nameless WFAN host and guest lauded HGH a dozen years ago, and that a phalanx of medics universally agree that HGH is more like the next breakthrough in healing than its ominous, syringe-dripping, organ-shredding cousin: steroids. As Paige said in response, it’s hard to embrace HGH as a legal elixir when it’s still illegal in sports and entire governing bodies are dedicated to detecting it more swiftly and accurately every year. Let’s leave all verdicts on medicine to those who practice it.
But the beat goes on.
A game will be played on Sunday. And just like the airbrushed celebrities we’ll see in some commercials and the faux fans in the chair next to you who only care about the ads, we will see a team win the game and skip and sing and scream off the field, covered in pads, aided by pills, swathed in tattoos and synthesized by steroids. Just a few years from now about 90 percent of those players won’t even be in the league anymore. Many of them will retire, be cut, get arrested, get killed or kill themselves. They won’t look anything like they did on Super Sunday. It makes you wonder if any of it was ever real.
It makes you wonder what’s so super about the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XLVII will be broadcast on CBS, with kickoff set for 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.
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