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Seeing is believing

There's cheating in all pro sports -- if you look closely

Posted: Wednesday October 25, 2006 12:12PM; Updated: Wednesday October 25, 2006 12:39PM
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While the substance seen on Kenny Rogers' pitching hand in Game 2 of the World Series caused much debate and uproar, there has been little outrage about Shawne Merriman's testing positive for steroids.
While the substance seen on Kenny Rogers' pitching hand in Game 2 of the World Series caused much debate and uproar, there has been little outrage about Shawne Merriman's testing positive for steroids.
Al Tielemans/SI (Rogers); John W. McDonough/SI

Sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight. Commit your crimes in broad daylight, and people just might not believe their eyes. We have seen that twice in recent days, on the two biggest stages American sports have to offer at the moment, the World Series and the NFL.

The Series has given us the strange situation involving the not-so-mysterious smudge on Kenny Rogers' pitching hand, a case that doesn't exactly require the gang from CSI to crack. It seems clear that Rogers, the Detroit Tigers' left-hander, had a foreign substance on his hand when he pitched in Game 2 on Sunday, an offense that countless other pitchers have no doubt committed, just not so blatantly. Rogers has denied any illegal intent, and his best defense seems to be that if he were trying to cheat, he would have been smarter about it, he would have hidden the substance somewhere other than at the base of his thumb, in plain view.

While Rogers and his apologists -- a group that, strangely, seems to include supervisor of umpires Steve Palermo, who has sounded more like the pitcher's defense attorney than a judge in all this -- try to explain away a common rules infraction, a much more serious offense in the NFL has drawn relatively little attention.

Shawne Merriman, the San Diego Chargers' outstanding linebacker, has been suspended for four games for violating the league's steroid policy, although he is eligible to play pending his appeal. It's the latest indication, but certainly not the only one, that the NFL has as much of a steroid problem as any other professional league, but somehow pro football doesn't operate under the steroid shadow that baseball does. The steroid issue in the NFL is like that brown substance on Rogers' hand -- so obvious that some of us have a hard time believing that it really is exactly what it looks like.

Consider the Merriman case. This is one of the best young players in the NFL, the league's defensive Rookie of the Year, apparently testing positive for nandrolone. (Merriman has denied intentionally using steroids, saying that he didn't know the illegal substance was in a supplement he was taking.) It's the baseball equivalent of, say, Phillies slugger Ryan Howard being identified as a steroid abuser. If that happened, it would be front-page news in every newspaper in the country. The talking heads on TV and the radio sports-talk shows would have gone into a frenzy. But steroids in the NFL? The story barely gets our attention, much less our outrage.

This isn't the first time we've been smacked in the face by the reality of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs in the NFL. The Charlotte Observer laid out evidence that five Carolina Panthers used steroids extensively during the 2002 season. On HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, former NFL lineman Dana Stubblefield estimated that 30 percent of players in the league used human growth hormone, which is undetectable by the league's testing procedures, and Washington offensive lineman Jon Jansen said that 15-20 percent of all players used performance-enhancing drugs of some sort.

Everything we see and hear from the NFL indicates that the players who are nailed for performance-enhancing drugs are just the tip of the iceberg, yet the only thing that seems to elicit from the public is a collective yawn, while we try to boo Barry Bonds out of the game and the federal government commits untold dollars to trying to nail him for perjury. Maybe that's because we've always assumed steroids were part of the NFL, while the realization that some of our baseball stars are fueled by performance enhancers is relatively new.

Whatever the reason, we study the tape of Rogers' pitching like the Zapruder film, rewinding it and analyzing it as though it's a matter of national security, while the NFL slides by with a steroid problem of unknown proportions. It's like cracking down on shoplifters while bank robbers walk past with bags full of money. There are issues far more worthy of our attention than whatever was on Kenny Rogers hand, if only we would bother to look.