One of these clichés is the proper explanation for what the signing of Justin Gatlin, the Olympic sprinter, would mean to the NFL. Gatlin tried out for the Houston Texans, perhaps a team in as much a search for something to point at as a worse decision than Mario Williams over Reggie Bush as they are for a vertical threat. If all this were the typical NFL obsession with speed or a struggling team taking a flier on a two-sport star, it would be a note, not a column. We’re used to oddities in football, though I’m still waiting for Magnus Ver Magnuson to get his tryout.
Instead, the Texans aren’t trying out a sprinter. They ran a symbol through his paces and the message sent is one of flippancy. Among American and International sports, none is more successful than the NFL. Among those same sports, none treats the problem of steroids and performance enhancers with less seriousness than that same NFL. It’s a successful policy, mind you. The public doesn’t perceive a problem because the policy works – on a public relations standpoint. When NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Shawne Merriman tested positive for a well-known steroid called nandrolone, the public shrugged. Compare this to the reaction that Jason Giambi, who admitted use of this same steroid in secret grand jury testimony, received. The media asked if Merriman’s four game suspension would leave the Chargers shorthanded at linebacker. The media asked if Giambi’s admission should lead to hanging or a firing squad.
Gatlin tested positive in the spring for exogenous testosterone, most likely a substance like testosterone cypionate that could be used in combination with another steroid. Where would Gatlin learn such techniques? From BALCO, the center of the sports doping scandal universe or perhaps from Trevor Graham, the coach who turned in BALCO’s secret THG to authorities, something many believe was done because Graham couldn’t get his own supply. As if that positive test – an unquestioned, inexcusable positive test that led Gatlin to accept an eight year suspension – were not enough, Gatlin thumbed his nose at the integrity of the sport.
This spring when the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championship was held in Indianapolis, Gatlin was there. He ran and won at a tournament after knowing he had tested positive, using the appeals process to gain a moment in the sun and take the appearance fee. That’s bad enough, but Gatlin was showcased. He stood, the shadow of the positive test on his head, and spoke to schoolchildren about the dangers of steroids. Faced with a smoking gun, Gatlin lied to the faces of the future. His speed was tainted, but no more so than his reputation and the integrity of the very sport.
Gatlin is now trying out for the Texans and perhaps other teams. At 24, the eight year suspension is likely the equivalent of a lifetime suspension from sprinting and while he hasn’t played football since 10th grade, Gatlin no doubt looked at his agent and saw the possibilities. His agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, made the same switch from track to football. Nehemiah brought his speed to the 49ers; Gatlin would bring that, but far too much baggage. Why, under suspension from a recognized sanctioning body, would the NFL explicitly allow Gatlin to try out? Why, when their limp noodle drug testing policy works so well in concert with their media machine, would the NFL not let that sleeping dog lie?
There’s an answer, but it’s not what I’d expected. The fact is that, according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, there was no approval given to the Texans for Gatlin’s tryout. That leaves the Texans with some explaining to do.
But the thought that an NFL team could allow this type of person to try out for a team, putting their team and the league at the center of controversy is telling. Simply put, the NFL has reached a stage where their arrogance and denial have met. They don’t believe there is a problem with drugs in football and even if there were, their control would allow them to quickly sweep it under the rug. Gatlin is a symbol of cheating, of falsehood, of all the evils of modern sport and yet, the NFL thinks it’s monogrammed shield is a bigger symbol.
Maybe it is, but that shield that looms so big and powerful might be like so many of its players – juiced.