Cheater?

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Peyton Manning's Absurd Doping Scandal

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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By now, you've probably heard about the Al Jazeera documentary alleging that Peyton Manning, among others, received shipments of human growth hormone, a performance-enhancing drug banned by most leagues, including the NFL. You've also probably heard that the main source has tried to recant his entire statement, which was secretly taped by an undercover athlete. You've heard vehement denials from Manning's camp and attempts by Manning supporters to discredit the news network.

What you might not have heard is why none of this should really matter at all.

Yes, even in 2015, some fans are still clinging to a fanciful notion of purity in sports. That includes outrage over performance-enhancing drugs, no matter how little the leagues actually seem to care, or how widespread their use is. Baseball essentially built its resurgence in the '90s on steroid-fueled home-run chases. The NFL has long turned a blind eye to doping among its ranks, and team doctors are known to give players all sorts of drugs to get them back on the field. The NFL banned HGH in 1991 but didn't start testing for it until 2014.

And there are persuasive arguments that human growth hormone should be legalized and regulated in sports, mostly to help players recover from injuries, which would spare us this mess of accusations against Manning and his ardent rebuffs. It would spare us having to give any more airtime to a Manning defense team that includes Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President George W. Bush who also happens to have been a paid consultant to the NFL in past years. (I suppose, there's no real conflict of interest here; the league has just as much stake in establishing Manning's innocence as Manning does.) It would spare Ashley Manning, Peyton's wife, to whom the shipment was allegedly addressed, of having her medical privacy violated in the course of investigating her famous husband.

Mostly, it would force us all to be that much more honest about what's really going on in our sports. The moralizing over human growth hormone seems like splitting hairs compared to the painkillers and other substances given to football players every week, drugs that carry the same immediate side-effects and cause the same long-term health problems. Moreover, the ban on HGH is largely ineffective -- it's particularly difficult to test for synthetic HGH and to differentiate it from hormones naturally produced by the body. No NFL players have ever tested positive for HGH, and since 2004, only "a dozen athletes worldwide" have tested positive, according to ESPN's Bonnie D. Ford.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has long been an advocate for exploring the sanctioned use of HGH in healing. Earlier this month, Ford talked to Cuban about the clinical trial he's financed that's looking at the possible role of HGH in helping players recover from ACL surgery. Cuban was reluctant to discuss the study until it yielded actual results, but the mere possibilities are intriguing. As Ford details, researchers believe HGH could be effective in fighting muscle atrophy that results from such an injury and reconstruction, aiding in long-term rehabilitation.

The science isn't yet settled on HGH's role in helping athletes recover from injury, and many fans, players and officials differ philosophically on whether that constitutes cheating. But I'd hope that our stance on performance-enhancing drugs can become much more aligned with reality. Call me a cynic, but the question of whether or not Peyton Manning took HGH is much less interesting than the question of why we all care so much if he did.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net