I won’t waste your time outlining the evidence that Performance Enhancing Drug use may exist in the NBA. Trevor Smith did a fantastic job laying it out in his article this morning, The Needle and the Damage Done: The NBA and HGH. While Trev’s remarks were more exploratory than accusatory, his message was very clear: passing off potential PED use in the NBA with a Fresh Prince-style ‘Psshhh’ is foolhardy on the part of fans and the league alike.
I debated even responding to Trev’s article – after all, the case studies of Dwyane Wade and the Phoenix Suns, and the obvious evidence of the difference in body types from 1980 to 1990 to today spell out a pretty compelling argument. Again, the argument is not that the NBA has a problem with PEDs, specifically Human Growth Hormone, but that the league and its fan base are being ignorant towards the possibility.
I want to take this notion a step further – the league and the fans need to speak up about this issue immediately. Allowing this giant to lay in slumber would be a grave mistake, and the NBA, specifically David Stern, must learn from the mistakes of the NFL and Major League Baseball.
David Stern/The NBA And PEDs
David Stern should especially want to shed light on any potential issue right now, even if it’s something he does quietly behind closed doors. David Stern’s reign as NBA Commissioner has been incredibly successful, a 25-year tenure that saw the league falter and then be saved, a reign that started the internationalization of the game, and a reign that has the NBA in a far better position to handle the recession than the NHL or Major League Baseball.
However, Bud Selig was applauded for his reign as MLB Commissioner up until a few years ago as well. Bud had been great for the growth of the game, and baseball saw itself rise from the ashes of the 1994 lockout to become America’s Game again. However, the steroid scandal, indeed the whole Steroid Era, occurred under Selig’s watch. Selig acted in ignorance and tried to sweep the problem under the rug for a long time – the problem appeared to also be the solution to the game’s other problems. It was a tough dilemma, for sure, but he handled it poorly and the Steroid Era will thus be the defining element of his reign as Commissioner – not the home run chase, the strike, baseball’s resurgence, or the creation of the World Baseball Classic. Steroids. David Stern is running this same risk as his tenure expands closer to a fourth decade. One of the greatest Commissioners of all time is running a serious risk of falling into the same trap that one of the (now) least respected Commissioners of all time fell into.
So the incentives for Stern to act are obvious. After a decade of the entire sports world ignoring PEDs and then being shamed when the truth came out, Stern could act in earnest and be viewed in a great light by exploring this potential issue immediately. Even if it were to come out, through testing or investigation or what have you, that the league does have a drug problem, at least Stern acted in a forward-thinking manner, attacking the issue for the good of the league and its players, not because the media (or Congress) forced him to.
The NBA Player’s Association And PEDs
Obviously, this is the group that will fight PED exploration the most. They have the most to lose – privacy, money, and reputation. But by being the first Player’s Association to openly accept a more rigorous testing program, the NBAPA would look better than the NFLPA and MLBPA by comparison, regardless of result. Additionally, if the P.A. is telling the truth, further testing comes at no cost other than the slight inconvenience of increased testing.
More importantly than the NBAPA itself, the player’s need to embrace exploration into the issue. They are the ones who are bigger, stronger, faster, and it is their reputations (and future earning potential) on the line if an MLB-level scandal were to materialize. I will ignore the health benefits of increased testing, because I’m sure any player using PEDs is well aware. But even with HGH, a drug said to have very few known negative side effects, the reputation-related consequences should be enough of a deterrent to limit PED use among players.
No player is going to come out and admit PED use unprovoked the way Jose Canseco did, and they are surely not going to ask for increased testing at the next Collective Bargaining meeting. However, by accepting stricter policies if the league asks, the players themselves would send a strong message that the league is clean, and that they truly are the best athletes the game has ever known.
The Fans And PEDs
Finally, the fans must also own up to a potential PED problem. In baseball’s Steroid Era, the fans simply claimed ignorance and inability – they didn’t know about the problem, and there’s nothing they could have done about it anyways. This is clearly false – there was always suspicion and the power of an entire fan base is extremely understated with such thinking. The real problem was apathy – the fans were enjoying a better MLB product and just wanted to enjoy it without thinking of the reason behind it.
Now, baseball fans find themselves in a strange situation – they enjoyed the Steroid Era, embraced its heroes, and were the main benefactors from PED use (except for, you know, the millionaire players and billionaire owners). However, fans cannot simply accept steroids, they feel the need to speak out against them, turn on the heroes of the Steroid Era, and went as far as to vote for Mark Ecko to brand Barry Bonds’ home run record ball with an asterisk. Obviously this is a fairly hypocritical situation, and it’s why you’re beginning to see a divide between certain types of fans – those who want to dwell on the Steroid Era and destroy every player who was a part of it, and those who just want to move on and enjoy the game again.
For NBA fans, the problem isn’t as dynamic. It really is difficult to tell if PED use is prevalent in the NBA, and there’s no saying that the game wouldn’t have evolved to the caliber it’s at right now anyways. After all, this isn’t the highest scoring era of basketball ever, it is simply the most athletic, most entertaining, and most star-studded.
So what is a fan to do? Simply questioning the growing trends and pressuring the league to look into it is enough for now. This is tough, obviously, for fans to do, but the internet and spoken word are powerful tools. At this point, simply accepting the possibility is enough on the part of fans.
Overall, the basketball world must begin to explore PED use as a possibility. The problem likely isn’t near the level of Major League Baseball’s or the NFL’s, and the league probably doesn’t have as much to lose as these leagues. A witch-hunt is not necessary, but increased and improved testing is. Player’s needn’t play or train in fear of accusation, but they do need to be aware of the possible repercussions and perceptions. David Stern doesn’t need to revolutionize steroid testing, but he does need to explore the possibility that usage exists in his league – it could save his reputation, and it could save the league before it needs saving.
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