Will anyone care when the first blockbuster doping scandal rocks the NFL?
It’s only a matter of time. The NFL is impossibly synthetic. But then, maybe it’s not a matter of time. Because nobody—the fans, the players, the owners—seems to care that 235 pound men are jumping 40 inches and running 4.3 40s. Why is that?
I don’t know. Except that football is itself a game of brutality. Maybe football is the natural arena for a drug that mutates men into angry, irrational thugs.
Will there be congressional hearings? Will Jeff Novitzky be on the case? Will NFL fans everywhere start writing thoughtful articles about the long term impact that doping has on the game? Not likely. The NFL has been riddled with PED’s since the 1960’s. Nobody cares.
But people do care about baseball and steroids. And people care about cycling and drugs.
Numbers, and participation.
Baseball has more than a century of statistical holy grails all neatly arranged in books. Record books. Modern number crunching and sabermetric analysis have made it possible to effectively compare players from 1911 with players in 2011. A .300 hitter then, is as rare as a .300 hitter now. Baseball and America have a unique emotional relationship. Before the free-agent era, professional ballplayers were working class heroes. They were as ordinary as a typical factory worker. They worked regular jobs during the winter. They went to war. They spit and swore and beat each other up in bars. They were just like everyone else. Baseball helped see a lot of people through some enormously difficult days. And regardless of ability, anyone could go out back and play catch. Or hit a double in a sandlot game. Or keep score at Fenway Park.
Numbers are the lifeblood of baseball. For baseball, numbers are history. And steroid-addled mutants spat in the face of those numbers. That history. And today, the record books are an impossible array of ethical limbo and legions of asterisks.
That’s why people care about doping in baseball.
Numbers in cycling are a softer standard. Courses change. Tactics evolve. The wind blows. But everyone who watches cycling, is a cyclist. Mostly. And especially in the United States. And so we know, if only imaginatively, how difficult it must be to climb Alp d’Huez because we all have our own versions right outside our front door.
And if that isn’t enough, we can ride the actual Alp d’Huez. For 364 days of the year it is, after all, just a road. Because we ride a bike, we understand the beauty and the grace and the speed that we witness in Grand Tours and Spring Classics. We can stand close enough to the action to crash the yellow jersey with a musette bag. Or we can cheer on friends as they climb familiar roads in the Tour of Utah. And we know their pain.
When a professional cyclist cheats, he cheats each one of us. Our pain is worth less, and our effort to the summit is cheapened because his success is manufactured. Ill-gotten. Our training and hard work becomes a bitter pill when others, who supposedly worked harder, and smarter, were just cheating.
That’s why we care about doping in cycling.
The NFL is entertaining. But those athletes are unrecognizable as people. They hide behind suits of armor, and perform super-human feats of speed and strength. And we all know it’s as fake as Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. But nobody cares.
And really, why would we?