Following Dolphins DE Jason Taylor's criticism of Chargers LB Shawne Merriman (see Big BM's December 27th column below), the blinding light of self-righteous disapprobation burns upon the young star nicknamed "Lights Out."
This is worth more careful consideration than what sportsjacks & Congress can offer. Merriman tested positive for an anabolic steroid called nandrolone (commercially named Deca-Durabolin) and served a four game suspension. He threatened to appeal and then dropped it; he threatened a lawsuit against an unnamed nutritional supplement company but has not filed it.
Merriman's attorney, David Cornwell, claims that unbeknownst to Merriman, the false positive was the result of a metabolized ingredient in one of the legal nutritional supplements the linebacker had been taking -- probably creatine, which is not a banned substance.
According to an anonymous source (yeah, that makes me wary too), Merriman tested positive "definitely for steroids… not one of those supplement deals." The NFL has made no official comment.
Both sportsjacks and NFL players have indignantly argued that the positve test not only invalidates Merriman's 2005 Defensive Rookie of the Year and his 2005 & 2006 Pro Bowl nods, but that it also disqualifies him for consideration as the 2006 Defensive Player of the Year and labels him a cheater forevermore. Let's consider these elements one at a time.
2006 DEF Player of the Year
Shawne Merriman is the NFL sack leader with 16, despite only playing 11 games. Since his return from suspension, he has recorded 8 sacks in 4 games. Nandrolone must be injected every 2 or 3 days or its effects are reversed; Merriman is now tested every week. He has accumulated 54 tackles, 1 INT, 4 forced fumbles and one recovery.
By comparison, front-runner Jason Taylor has 56 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 2 INTs (both for TDs), 9 forced fumbles and one recovery. No doubt Taylor's bid for the award (and disappointment with the bizarrely over-hyped Dolphins season) played a part in his criticism. In response to Taylor's remarks, Merriman sent Taylor a "Lights Out" hat and a bag of microwave popcorn for Taylor to enjoy while sitting at home watching the Chargers in the playoffs.
Other top defensive players include Green Bay's Aaron Kampmen (15.5 sacks, 83 tackles, 3 forced fumbles), Houston's DeMeco Ryans (NFL-leading 118 tackles) and Denver's Champ Bailey (NFL-leading 9 INTs ... but no TDs).
In the numbers game for the award, Merriman is arguably #3 in the NFL after Taylor and Kampmen.
Merriman's claim that his positive result was accidental does not excuse it, but it may mitigate some of the fire and brimstone. There are enough uncertainties regarding a urinalysis test for nandrolone to cast a reasonable doubt. The University of Aberdeen in Scotland has proven that a positive test may be the result of a high-protein diet, legal nutritional supplements and rigorous cardiovascular exercise.
A false positive may also be the result of high consumption of beef containing steroids, which overturned the banning of Olympic bobsledder Lenny Paul. A false positive may also occur due to consumption of certain amino acids, which Olympic shotputter CJ Hunter unsuccessfully claimed were in legal nutritional supplements he was taking. Hunter's claim was weakened when it was pointed out that his levels were 1,000 times the sanctioned limit, and he failed four tests over a six month period: that's a lot of GNC protein shakes.
It has been scientifically established that nandrolone must be injected every 2-3 days on a rigorous cycle to be effective. At least 25 companies produce ampules of nandrolone. Steroids are legal to ingest but are illegal to buy or sell without a prescription. Nandrolone is on the list of banned substances for both the IOC, the NFL and most other professional leagues (but not pro wrestling, NASCAR, or golf). The NFL testing policy follows that of the International Olympic Committee and has the most offseason tests, the widest umbrella of banned substances, and the lowest permissable level of testosterone of any professional sport.
The Pro Bowl
As cited above, Merriman is statistically an indisputable Pro Bowl LB. But if he was suspended during the year, is it right for him to enjoy post-season honors? Should his 2005 awards be "asterisked?"
The Ethical Quandry
Caesar famously said, “Meos tam suspicione quam crimine iudico carere oportere.” This literally means, "My wife should be as much free from suspicion of a crime as she is from a crime itself" (emphasis added). Usually this is idiomatically translated as "Caesar's wife should be above reproach."
Jason Taylor said that banning a player for life would end the use of steroids once and for all. There is no doubt that every effort must be made to rid sports of the taint of steroids (which, by the way, shrinkwrap one's balls up against one's taint).
Look at the #56 on his chest. Can you think of another player who used performance-enhancing drugs (hint: cocaine), yet was a first-ballot Hall of Famer? The NFL is much more concerned with on-field violations than with off-field felonies (even if they involves stealing someone's tacos and whipping them with a belt). The argument that NFL players should be above reproach is worthwhile: playing in the NFL is multi-million dollar privilege and kids really do emulate their favorite players. If Brett Favre does a throat-slash, you can guarantee that every dead-deer-fucking Wisconsite will be throat-slashing at the earliest opportunity 'neath the Friday Night Lights.
Performance-enhancing drugs directly effect gameplay. Wife-beating does not. Though the hypocrisy is palpable, pro sports have proven to be resilient against scandals of a felonious nature. Steroids invalidate the game itself and that is devastating to sports fans: watch interest in MLB wither and die like Lyle Alzado.
Jason Taylor says that he is proud to be a skinny kid who is performing at a high level because of his hard work and natural talent. He has been recognized as a Pro Bowl DE five times.
The Pro Bowl is democratic. Players, head coaches and fans cast votes, with each group counting one-third toward the total. If Merriman was judged one of the best DE in the league despite a four game suspension, he is a Pro Bowl player.
NFL Defensive Player of the Year is determined by the Associated Press. No criteria is established besides an attempt to identify the most outstanding defender, e.g. three-time winner LB Lawrence Taylor. The AP has more discretion than Pro Bowl voters, and would probably tacitly punish Merriman for his suspension even though he served his time.
A lifetime ban, as proposed by Jason "First Stone" Taylor, certainly would have a strong effect. But what about false positives? What about mis-labelled supplements? What about cough syrup? What about rape going unpunished?
NFL trainers need to be in charge of their athletes. If NFL players must be "above reproach" they are going to need help from experts who fluently know both the complex chemistry involved and the ever-expanding and confusing banned substance list for the NFL. Until that is the case, draconian punishments are misplaced. It is appropriate that NFL players be as responsible for what's in their bodies as they are for their gap assignments. But they are not chemists, they are not nutritionists, they are not legal experts. Even in the NFL, American citizens should remain innocent until proven guilty.