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Mejia, Manning and a Dumb Doping Debate

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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New York Mets reliever Jenrry Mejia has failed his third drug test, automatically triggering a lifetime ban and making him the first player to face permanent suspension under Major League Baseball's new performance-enhancing drug policy. It's hard to tell which part of that sentence is silliest.

At first glance, it's obviously Mejia, who failed not one but two tests while already serving a PED suspension. He wasn't even playing; there was no performance to enhance. Mets fans right now are undoubtedly laughing to keep from crying at the whole situation.

But the whole situation is predicated on a faulty and inconsistent treatment of substance abuse, and it's not unique to baseball. While not a widespread phenomenon, PEDs can be addictive among certain individuals, and have been found to lead to increased "risk-taking behaviors" among this small subgroup.

And given the various leagues' long-time indifference to PEDs, it's pretty rich that the pendulum of penalty has swung so drastically in the other direction. Former Mets great Mike Piazza absolutely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame and have his number retired by the team. But as an admitted PED user, his status in the league would be far different if he were scrutinized under today's policy.

Suspensions and lifetime bans also seem overly punitive and somewhat arbitrary, giving the ever-evolving landscape of drug technology. Some athletes are always going to be one step ahead of what is considered a "legal" PED, until it's not. One month you're fine; the next month you'd fail a drug test.

Most important, PEDs aren't just used to inflate individual stats and break records; some, like HGH, are also used to heal, to get back on the field faster, to help the team, league and owners. Given the physical demands we make of players, we should be more empathetic, if not coldly calculating, of what might drive them to further enhance their labored bodies. 

That's why Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is funding research into the legitimate uses of human growth hormone to recover from injury; it's not just about compassionate medicine, but also about getting his product ready for game-time. That's why everyone outside of some moralizing pundits and fans don't really care that Peyton Manning maybe took HGH. Thousands of Super Bowl headlines thank him for being able to get back on the field.

Which explains why the National Football League is particularly inconsistent when it comes to its drug policy. Many former players allege that PED use is widespread and largely overlooked in football, and though some think the substances actually contribute to the league's injury count, they also make players bigger, faster, stronger and more entertaining for the rest of us. 

Compare the league's attitude on PEDS with its stance on marijuana, which offers none of those enhancing qualities. Even in states such as Colorado and Washington that have legalized it, marijuana remains prohibited for NFL players, despite its widespread use -- 60 percent by some estimates. Many players say the drug helps them recover from the game's inherent physicality, not to mention the relief it may provide players with a history of concussions.

At his annual State of the NFL press conference before the Super Bowl, Commissioner Roger Goodell addressed a question about the league's stance on marijuana as its legal status continues to shift, as well as attitudes toward its use and medicinal legitimacy. "We are not restricted ... by state laws," he said, reiterating the NFL's policy against marijuana and contending that the league's "medical professionals" are regularly assessing the situation. 

In that same press conference, Goodell said the NFL would work with law enforcement and the World Anti-Doping Agency in the investigation into Manning's alleged HGH use, while stressing that league officials "do not have an independent investigation going on at this point."

In that same press conference, Goodell addressed the situation of Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon, suspended indefinitely for multiple failed drug tests, first for what he said was codeine in his cough syrup, then for marijuana, and finally for alcohol. Goodell stated that Gordon's reinstatement, for which the player applied in January, would be contingent on him persuading the commissioner he was fully rehabilitated. Given the severity of the penalty handed down to Gordon, it's fair to wonder if the league would treat the Manning allegations as lightly if he was caught smoking pot -- legal in Denver, where he plays.

Finally, in that same press conference, Goodell repeated the league's pattern of talking big on the seriousness of long-term brain trauma before immediately turning around and downplaying the crisis. "If I had a son, I would want him to play football," he said, before adding, absurdly, "there's risk in life. There's risk in sitting on the couch." If Goodell did have a son, and if he did play football, it's also fair to ponder the various pressures he would feel to take PEDs, everything from HGH to marijuana to Toradol to all the cortisone shots athletes take to get into playing form.

None of this is to excuse Jenrry Mejia. He broke the rules knowing full well the consequences. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking that PED use in sports occurs in a vacuum. The pressure to perform, to excel, to win, comes from all of us, from the fans who pay to watch superhuman feats by mortal men to the leagues that both punish and profit from of them.

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