Our blissful ignorance was on peacock display again last week with the comical “scandal” involving Ray Lewis. We’ll get to that in a moment. But, first, as athletes and games and stakes grow as if on human growth hormone, let’s rewind 15 years for proper perspective — arriving at that utopian, pure football time when the old guy trying to block a young Ray Lewis had … a catheter in his penis.
Lomas Brown, an offensive lineman for 18 years, once played an NFL game with pooped uniform pants because there wasn’t time for the politeness of a bathroom break. Another time, in search of soothing, he slathered himself in a cream intended for horses, the awful stench oozing from his mouth and every pore for days. Each game his last seven seasons, in a sport we are seeing is not meant for the human body, he took a pregame injection in the butt that burned so much for 60 seconds that this giant man would close his eyes whenever that big needle approached — and that was the remedy. But nothing compared to what he endured while trying to pass a kidney stone during that game against Lewis.
“I had to crawl on the field,” he says.
Kidney stones are about the worst physical pain a human body can feel (aside from labor), but that wasn’t the worst part of Brown’s day. Throughout the game, he felt like he had to urinate every 15 seconds. Teammates would gather around him with towels on the sideline, shielding him as he tried to pass the stone in public. But that wasn’t the worst part.
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“The most painful part was them taking the catheter out afterward,” Brown says. “Oh my God. So excruciating. They yank it out all at once. Horrible. Horrible. The doctor had pliers and counted to three and just yanked. They put a towel in my mouth [for the screaming]. Oh my God.”
We want our athletes to care so very, very deeply.
But we don’t want them to care too much?
It is a symbol of echoing strength in the gladiator arena for legend Ronnie Lott to demand his pinkie finger be cut off during a football game so he could keep playing. But it is a Super Bowl “scandal” for Lewis to rush back to punctuate a 17-year career by maybe — maybe! — using a deer antler spray any of us can buy at a local supplement store to speed healing. The judgments we rain down upon these athlete-entertainers are filled with selective moralities, but you’ll have a hard time finding an inconsistency more absurd than that one, though modern medicine keeps giving us more from which to choose.
We are OK with Kirk Gibson hitting one of the most famous home runs ever on one steroid (cortisone), but we slam the Hall of Fame door on the face of everybody else who might have used the anabolic kind. Granted, cortisone is not a banned performance enhancer, but it certainly enhanced Gibson’s performance, which wouldn’t have been possible without it. Lost in the shouting of “Cheater!” and “Fraud!” from a pill-popping America is how often athletes have to go through the pharmacy for the healing properties of hormones — not just to hit home runs but because what they do for a daily living really hurts.
We don’t seem to have an issue with Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning turning in age-defying performances after having their blood spun in Germany, but Lance Armstrong blood doping for endurance is a historic fraud. There is an ethical line between those two things, healing and cheating, banned and not banned, but it is blurrier than ever because of advances in medicine, about as thin as the one letter of difference between “immortality” and “immorality.” Ephedrine, you remember, was perfectly legal in baseball right up until Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died on a spring training field.
The climate complicates things more. Fans and media want to believe the unbelievable so badly, it is as if we are all drugged, too. We love pure miracles, so football’s MVP award went to Adrian Peterson after an unprecedented comeback when it should probably just go to science instead. And we’ll howl with betrayal if he hastened his recovery with something banned. We want our make-believe to be real, damn it, even though this is all just entertainment, and the entire from-standing-ovation-to-finger-wagging journey is like watching a Disney movie stopped mid-reel to have one of the cartoons pee in a cup.
Hurts, too, that we in the media often have no idea what the hell we are clucking about, reporting on things with the seriousness of politics while standing outside a circus tent. It was uproarious to watch this deer antler controversy blow up during a wacky Super Bowl Media Day usually reserved for reporters dressed as bumble bees. You had ESPN somberly breaking the news, and Sports Illustrated lending its credibility to a former male stripper/accuser, while reporters asked Lewis about his Madden video-game commercials and his dance moves. Later in the week, as the sale of deer antler spray exploded, the former male stripper showed up at radio row in a sleeveless shirt to change his story. He did this while holding actual deer antlers.
It isn’t hard to understand why athletes skirt the rules. With just two syllables, Armstrong gave voice to the modern athlete’s conundrum during his televised confessional.
Did blood doping feel wrong?
Did you feel bad about it?
This isn’t because he was consciously immoral. He was literally just trying to keep up, his doctors against the other guy’s doctors, the cyclist taking an ambiguous moral stand literally trailing by miles the ones who weren’t. It becomes so much clearer with hindsight, after the consequences have fallen on your head, Armstrong saying, “I know it a thousand times more now.” But back when steroids were medicine saving baseball, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa didn’t run around the bases thinking they were raging frauds fooling all of America. They were just using advanced medicine as a supplement, trying to gain an edge as athletes always do, healing the aches and not having any earthly idea of the size of the consequences in the distance because consequences had not yet befallen anyone in their sport for doing what everyone else was doing. Ten years from now, blood spinning or human growth hormone or the modern-day ephedrine equivalent might feel more like steroids — obvious and overt — than they do to the athletes “cheating” with them today.
The mind can do a lot of rationalizing. We don’t often see the size of consequences until we or someone else experience them. We all know it is wrong to text and drive, right? But we don’t know just how wrong it can be until we’ve harmed or killed someone. You’d have to guess that football is slathered in human growth hormone, given the size of the athletes, but there is no testing, so the guys using it probably don’t think they are cheating the same way baseball’s steroid users did. There is too much money and glory and competitiveness in sports for athletes to not have the world’s best doctors looking for all the healing loopholes in the gray areas that surround the bans.
But you have to admit we’ve arrived in a barbaric, confusing place when the following is true: Destroying your body by cutting off your finger or playing with a catheter in your penis is not against the rules, but using some kind of deer antler spray to speed up healing is, and we spend a lot more time questioning the morality of athletes than we do the morality of the athletic culture or its rules.