Golden Tate’s P.R. strategy sidesteps cheating stigma

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Giants receiver Golden Tate may indeed have been telling the truth when he explained that he began taking a fertility drug, that he realized in a matter of days that the drug is a banned substance under the PED policy, and that in the interim he was randomly tested under the PED policy. Like Tate, nearly every player who gets caught violating the PED policy has a plausible (or at least semi-plausible) excuse that softens the stigma of using PEDs for cheating.

Indeed, apart from receiver Julian Edelman (who didn’t bother to offer an excuse at all), every player who ever has tested positive for PEDs has had an explanation that didn’t involve using Performance Enhancing Drugs to actually enhance performance. Most often, the player took a supplement that unbeknownst to him contained PEDs. On other occasions, it was a fertility treatment. Most recently, Cowboys defensive end Robert Quinn claimed that otherwise permitted medication was tainted at the pharmacy with a banned compound.

From the NFL’s perspective, it doesn’t matter. And it shouldn’t; as a wise man once told me, “I may have a perfectly reasonable excuse for showing up to work without pants on, but that doesn’t change the fact that I showed up to work without pants on.”

From the perspective of court of public opinion, it’s much easier to sell a semi-plausible excuse than to embrace the stigma of cheating, especially since so few players who test positive for PEDs ever embrace that which for some of them has to be the truth. Still, the constant steam or semi-plausible excuses means that only innocent and well-meaning players have ever found themselves ensnared by a positive PED test — and that the PED testing process has never caught cheating a deliberate, premeditated cheater. Other than Edelman.

It’s unfortunate for the players who are telling the truth, but that’s one of the basic realities of a strict-liability PED policy that imposes discipline without proof of intent to cheat. The easy (and perhaps most appropriate) approach would be to simply regard all PED violators as cheaters, ignoring their excuses, no matter how persuasive they may be.

That’s a tough concept to sell, especially since fans and media don’t get nearly as bent out of shape about PED use in football as they do about PED use in baseball. Indeed, how much of a stigma is there even for guys who actually cheated? Edelman’s silence put him squarely in that category, but no one seems to care that, by all appearances, he used PEDs to hasten his recovery from a torn ACL so that he’d still have a job in the NFL — even if he possibly took a job away from someone who wasn’t using a PED.

It’s important to remember that point. Players who use PEDs, whether to more quickly recover from an injury or to run faster, jump higher, and/or push harder, gain an unfair advantage when competing for roster spots and depth-chart position against players who don’t use PEDs. For every player who uses PEDs to keep his roster spot or to enhance his status, chances are that some other clean player ends up with the short end of the stick.

Not that any of it matters. Fans and media will continue to shrug their shoulders, not wag their fingers, when it comes to PED use in football. Especially when the player who tests positive finds a way to check the “plausible excuse for violating the PED policy” box.

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