“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”
-Paradise Lost, John Milton
Bill Simmons recently wrote a great column about the apparent prevalence of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in professional sports in reaction what is becoming the most common story of the 21st century: the cheating athlete.
For some background, Football Player Ray Lewis has been in hot water (well mildly hot) since a few news outlets broke the news that he may have used something called Deer Antler Spray to recover from a torn tricep that happened early this very season. What would normally be a season ending (and in Ray Lewis’ case career ending) injury was only a two month sideline for the 37 year-old linebacker.
Anyone who watches sports, follows sports or even just played sports knows that our bodies typically peak in physical prowess around 27 years of age and have their best seasons from then until around 30. Then, as natural as the sun setting, there is a distinct and sometimes very noticeable diminishing. It doesn’t matter how many years or minutes an athlete played at some point their stats drop off.
Which isn’t to say it’s crazy that a 37 year-old man is still a professional athlete. Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. famously played a streak of 2,632 games, 17 straight years, and retired when he was 40. Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired when he was 42 having won 6 NBA championships and scoring over 38,000 points (6,000 more than Michael Jordan) in his career. To top it all off, he and the Lakers went to the NBA finals in his final season.
So athletes can naturally have longevity and effectiveness well passed their prime. And in some ways, that was how we separated the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) from the mere mortals.
But not all great players had long careers. Jim Brown retired in 9 seasons at 29 and is widely considered the greatest running back ever. Bo Jackson, Barry Sanders, Tiki Barber, even Michael Jordan (despite retiring three times) all had amazing yet, by some standards, brief careers.
Which brings us back to today. Ray Lewis is being accused of cheating. He allegedly used a PED which helped him to recover quickly from an injury which almost certainly would have ended his season. And perhaps in part, his expedient return helped put the Baltimore Ravens on a late season run which got them into the Super Bowl.
If it turns out that Ray Lewis cheated, in lieu of recent revelations about other noted cheaters, he might end his season on a high note only to have his Hall of Fame career forever tarnished.
But what does it mean to cheat? And what does it say about sports when cheating is so rampant that I find myself questioning any and all “miracle” stories?
Cheating, on the surface, a simple thing. A good player wants to have an edge in a competitive league. Rather than work hard and play the hand they’re dealt, they instead take drugs and load the deck. With beasts like Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, it’s easy to dismiss their actions as selfish and deceitful. Because of their cheating they went from good hitters into physically dominant sluggers who turned every hit into a home run.
Or Lance Armstrong. He doped his blood and did whatever else he could to give his body the kind of edge that matters in a sport like biking, endurance.
But, that’s not really the case with Ray Lewis. I’m not saying that he didn’t go that route in the past. For all I know the reason he was a monster at middle linebacker for 17 years is because he always used PED’s and it literally made him a monster. I’m talking about this case, right now. Deer. Antler. Spray.
What is so remarkable about his comeback is not that all of a sudden he was playing like it was 2003 again. It’s remarkable that he was able to come back at all.
As Bill Simmons mentioned several times in his article, a torn tricep typically takes 6 months to recover from. Ray lewis was back in 2. Had he taken 6 months that would have meant his season would end and since Lewis already announced his retirement, that would have been the end of his career.
So let’s assume he used the spray and it allowed him to play again before he retired. Is that the same thing as a competitive edge? I would almost say it sounds like medical treatment.
If you or I tore our tricep and went to the doctor, they would give us a diagnosis that might include some sort of surgery option, some physical therapy, some drugs and probably a sling or brace of some kind. We would probably have to stop working out or playing catch for at least 6 months (for a normal person like you or me, maybe more).
But what if a doctor recommended we use the same chemicals in the Deer Antler Spray combined with intense physical therapy and we could probably recover in say, 3 months. That sounds like a better option. That sounds like a good treatment.
And that is what happened. Ray Lewis came back in 2 months and managed to salvage what was left of his last season as a football player. A football player got to play more football. Realistically the only thing he cheated was time. But in the NFL, he also cheated the rules.
Right now, when a sport has rules about drugs or other illegal PEDs it bans every substance for any and all uses. When there are exceptions it tends to make the league look suspect.
What if, instead of going through the cat and mouse game of cheating players evading drug testers, and journalists hearing about it from their sources, everybody was on level ground?
What if we took the approach that not only will all players be regularly tested by the best methods possible with all penalties that come with it, but also that the league might change its view on what cheating really was. Let’s say that the NFL had a policy wherein, injured or older players with bodies naturally breaking down could openly explore any option to get back to playing form and only had to request the league review the substance and its use case.
In that case maybe a player like Ray Lewis could tear his tricep and ask the league, ‘hey can I use this stuff to recover quickly so I can play some more football’? Then the league could approve the use so it isn’t shady and under the table and also monitor its use to determine whether or not Lewis was only treating an injury or trying to add 20 pounds more muscle.
Maybe I don’t know enough about PED’s. Maybe there is no case where its use isn’t sinister and selfish. But we have to consider that athletes in any sport are destroying their bodies on a regular basis for high salaries, high ratings, high revenues and most of all, great television. So maybe instead of acting like cheating is always cheating and players are just selfish, rich egomaniacs, the league could acknowledge that they created this beast actually own responsibility for taking care of it
They’re dropping like flies out there.
“O sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state I fell,
how glorious once above thy sphere,
til pride and worse ambition threw me down.”
-Paradise Lost, John Milton