Players are getting bigger and stronger all the time, and every fan knows why: anabolic steroids. These illicit drugs promote greater mass and strength, allowing the athletes to transform themselves into replicas of the Incredible Hulk. Sports Illustrated quotes players who estimate that between 40 percent and 90 percent of their colleagues use steroids. The public is growing disenchanted, and the integrity of the sport is in doubt. Eventually, everyone agrees, the obvious solution has to be adopted: banning steroids and requiring players to submit to random drug tests.
Major League Baseball, 2002? No—the National Football League in 1986. Back then, the NFL had a steroid problem just as bad as baseball does today, and it did what everyone says baseball should do. But 15 years later it’s hard to find evidence that testing for steroids has accomplished anything at all in pro football. The NFL’s experience ought to give pause to anyone who assumes a crackdown will clean up baseball’s steroid problem.
Looking at what’s happened to NFL players’ bodies in the last 15 years, you’d think steroids had become mandatory rather than forbidden. In the last season before testing began in 1987, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl without a single player who weighed as much as 300 pounds. The previous year, the Chicago Bears took the title with only one 300-pounder, defensive tackle William “the Refrigerator” Perry, whose girth was due to his bottomless capacity for food. Compare those teams to the New England Patriots squad that won this year’s Super Bowl—which boasted 15 300-pounders. Today, on the NFL’s preseason rosters, there are close to 350 of them—an average of 11 per team. Linemen weighing less than 280 pounds, meanwhile, are virtually extinct. What qualified as huge in the 1980s is now regarded as puny.
How is it that NFL players are randomly tested for steroids and yet continue to get larger all the time? Critics say the reasons are obvious: Players have found ways to circumvent or beat the tests, and the league doesn’t try very hard to catch cheaters. Since the league began sanctioning players for positive tests in 1989, only 35 players have been caught—and 17 of those came in the first two years. Since then, the dragnet has averaged fewer than two collars per season. “Only careless and stupid people flunk drug tests, among elite athletes,” says Penn State professor Charles Yesalis, who has written or edited three books on performance-enhancing drugs. “No one knows the prevalence of steroid use in the NFL for sure. But people in my field don’t think the testing program is effective.” Not only that, but players have also reportedly begun using other substances designed to increase size and power, such as human growth hormone, for which there is no test.
Yesalis and other experts doubt the NFL’s resolve partly because players have kept growing. He quotes the late Oakland Raiders star Lyle Alzado: “There are freaks of nature, but not enough to fill an NFL roster.” They’re also suspicious of the fact that no marquee athlete has ever been busted. About the biggest catch came in 1999, when a steroid test came back positive for a starting Bears quarterback, journeyman Jim Miller—who most Chicagoans wouldn’t know from Mitch Miller. Most of the other proven abusers have been even less famous. A Ben Johnson case—a star exposed and suspended because of a positive test—has yet to occur in football, and until it does, the doubters will have ample grounds for suspicion.
The NFL insists that the program is rigorous and effective. If that’s true, it suggests that even a tough anti-steroids program does nothing to cure the scandal it’s supposed to address: the growth of players to superhuman dimensions. Maybe improved nutrition and space-age training methods really are behind the rapid evolution—just as many professional athletes claim. Or maybe the credit belongs to other performance-enhancing substances that the tests can’t pick up. But none of these explanations supports the belief that baseball can achieve much with a testing program. The football experience suggests one of two conclusions: If steroids are the problem, then testing is not effective; if testing is effective, then steroids are not the problem.
All of this is bad news for the major leagues. If baseball does nothing about steroids, it can expect player physiques to grow even more cartoonish, the game to suffer further distortion, records to lose all meaning, and fans to get more and more cynical. Which, unfortunately, is exactly what will happen if baseball does something.