NFL flushes right to tackle steroids

In comparison to the gang in purple to the west, the Packers probably would like to flush this off-season down the toilet, But, hey, look on the bright side. At least the Packers haven't had a player arrested for using the Original Whizzinator.

You've got to hand it to Onterrio Smith, a decent but unknown running back who led the Vikings in rushing. They say there's no such thing as bad publicity. Facing a year suspension for a third failed drug test, perhaps Smith can support his habit by being the pitch man for The Whizzinator. To borrow a line from the San Francisco Chronicle's Scott Ostler, Joe DiMaggio was Mr. Coffee, so maybe Smith can be Mr. Whizzy.

All joking aside, the NFL will point to the Smith situation as a sign its drug-testing policy works.

Here's the not-so-funny reality check for commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Three Carolina Panthers football players allegedly took steroids during their Super Bowl season but were never caught by the league. Somehow, they beat the system. Where there's smoke, there's fire. Players are getting bigger, faster and stronger every year. While a lot of that can be attributed to better nutrition and more diligent workout routines, Tagliabue is naive if he thinks performance-enhancing drugs aren't a problem.

To be sure, the NFL's drug policy is the toughest among the professional sports. A four-game suspension for a first-time offender represents one-fourth of the season. While that may not deter an average player bent on hitting the NFL's financial lottery, losing a player for four games is a serious blow to the teams.

Still, the problem is the NFL — like the other leagues — has no incentive to catch the cheats. Sure, busting guys like Smith shows the league is doing something. But something doesn't necessarily mean a lot. The NFL and the other sports have nothing to gain by suspending one of their elite players.

As Rep. Clifford Stears, R-Fla., said: "I am not convinced that an effective solution to this problem can be found in a system that allows those with a vested interest in the performance of players and leagues to police themselves."

Stears is one of the authors of legislation that likely will be introduced in the House of Representatives next week. While specifics haven't been announced, the bill would follow the Olympic model and suspend first-time offenders for two years. A second offense would mean a lifetime ban. A similar bill will be introduced in the Senate. Passage seems likely.

"I have never seen this much bipartisanship on any issue since I've been in Congress," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Tagliabue, not surprisingly, isn't exactly welcoming Congress's intervention, calling the two-year penalty "draconian," considering the average NFL career lasts just four years.

The fact is, though, the NFL and the rest of the professional leagues have had their chance to clamp down on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. They failed. Couple that with the fact that most professional sports teams are playing in arenas and stadiums paid partially or completely by state and local governments — that's money coming out of your paycheck — and the leagues have lost their right to tell the government to butt out.

Sure, Congress has more important issues to tackle. But with team after team blackmailing its way into posh new palaces — either by threatening to move or, as was the case with the Packers, saying they could no longer compete in their outdated homes — then don't we as fans have a right to demand that our sports heroes are drug free?

Players, teams and leagues are wealthy beyond belief. We as fans are footing the bill, through tickets and even your cable bills. Don't we have the right to demand that our drug-free quarterback isn't smashed to bits by a steroid-filled linebacker? Don't we we want the records of the drug-free home run champion to withstand the challenge of a steroid-filled slugger?

If pro sports really want to get performance-enhancing drugs out of their games, if they really want their stars to be role models, if they really care about the health of their players, then they should support Congress in this mission.

In a world where it's hard to believe in anything anymore, it would be nice to believe that Joe Sports Role Model is built out of hard work instead of chemistry.

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