Why Welker’s Suspsension is not a Referendum on Football

Wes Welker has been suspended for four games for being in violation of the NFL’s policy concerning performance enhancing drugs. The drug of choice, which Welker claims he didn’t knowingly ingest, was amphetamines. Amphetamines were, according to Jim Bouton in Ball Four, ubiquitous in baseball in the 1960s. It would seem that many of the greats of that era used them, but this was before baseball had any policy regarding such drugs. For a time, about a decade ago, amphetamines became a very uncomfortable subject for those determined to bash the steroid era players and to hold on a pedestal previous generations of “clean” ballplayers. As a result, many pundits, without any real medical knowledge, insisted that amphetamines were no big deal and certainly had nothing like the performance-enhancing properties of steroids. Will Carroll, in The Juice, took dead aim at that claim and, subsequently, baseball added amphetamines to its list of banned substances. Proper decorum in sports punditry dictates, therefore, that one can attack the character of a current ballplayer for using the drug. But one still isn’t supposed to point to the inconvenient truth of its apparent use by Aaron, Mays, Mantle and so forth.

Whether the drugs on the various leagues’ lists of banned substances provide more of a performance boost than those that aren’t, whether the former, as a group, are more deleterious to one’s health than those in the latter – these are not questions that anyone has systematically answered. Welker’s reputation will be tarnished by his suspension, but it will also be relatively quickly forgotten. He joins a long line of NFL players who’ve failed one drug test or another. One thing that Welker’s suspension won’t do, though, is raise any real questions about the integrity of the NFL. You’d have to be quite naive to doubt that the use of substances the league formally bans is widespread. But when a player gets suspended, the event redounds to the detriment of the player and his character and integrity, not football itself. This is among the great sleights of hand the NFL has pulled off. Widespread cheating, “artificially” muscled up bodies – none of that seems to matter.  Baseball’s critics, including internally, have crafted a careful narrative whereby the transgressions of one generation are glossed over in order to preserve for the sport a golden age, a usable past against which the profane present can be condemned with relish. This is at the moral center of what “tradition” means for the national pastime. Football has no such concerns – apart from compellingly grainy footage, its past isn’t relevant to its present. Only the next slate of games mean something.

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