Super Bowl XLVII: Is the NFL next for a PED scandal?

Super Bowl XLVII week's strangest story involved Ray Lewis and something called 'Deer Antler Spray.' It sounds silly, but the incident could hint at serious future questions for the NFL following Super Bowl XLVII.

Patrick Semansky/AP/File
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis stretches during an NFL Super Bowl XLVII walkthrough on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The alleged 'Deer Antler Spray' connection to Lewis, whether it's true or not, could be a harbinger of larger questions about PEDs in the NFL.

If anyone could wrestle some Super Bowl spotlight away from the Harbaugh family this week, it was bound to be Ray Lewis. But it probably wasn’t the kind of attention he was hoping for.

The linebacker’s New Orleans retirement party hit a snag in the days leading up to his last game, when an article from Sports Illustrated linked him to a supplement called Deer Antler Velvet Extract, or “Deer Antler Spray.”  Sold by a company called S.W.A.T.S (Sports With Alternatives to Steroids), it allegedly contains the compound IGF-1, a growth hormone and supposed performance enhancer banned by the National Football League.

The resulting scandal had fizzled by Friday, as the Ravens geared up to face the 49ers. Lewis denied using the substance, and the supplier sourced by the SI article held a press conference and confirmed that he had never seen Lewis actually use the spray (which is administered orally). Besides, it’s hard to get worked up about a drug that sounds like a potion peddled by a shadowy man traveling through town with a 19th -century carnival. Especially during the biggest party in US sports.

But the silliness of the Deer Antler Spray incident hints at something bigger: in a post-Lance Armstrong, post steroid-era MLB sports landscape, we’re starting to view these things not as isolated events, but as indications of some larger culture of doping within certain professional sports. And whether Lewis is guilty or not, the NFL might be the next league with a steroid scandal on its hands.

There’s still no definitive evidence of widespread PED use among pro football players, but authorities are starting to look for it, and delays of such probing are drawing suspicion. In 2011, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement drawn up by the league and the NFL Players Association stipulated the institution of a more stringent drug-testing program, including in-season blood testing for Human Growth Hormone. According to experts, HGH can be a notoriously difficult substance to detect (it exists naturally in the human body, scientists say, often in elevated levels in young male athletes), but regular blood testing combined with biological passports for athletes makes the testing these days much more reliable.

But though the CBA was drawn up two years ago, no testing program has been put in place, even as the MLB has instituted its own in-season HGH blood testing.  The US House of Representatives Oversight Committee has held multiple hearings on the matter, warning the NFL could be in line for its own MLB-esque Congressional  steroid investigation. And the some are starting to wonder: are they hiding something?

ESPN columnist Bill Simmons articulated it best in a Friday Grantland article on the matter: As sports fans, we’ve been slowly conditioned to privately doubt any sporting achievement that seems a little too remarkable, even as such feats keep us coming back for more.

“There’s no such thing as the ‘benefit of the doubt’ anymore,” he writes. “Not in sports. Too many people take advantage. All the benefits are gone. ”

But, “we're culpable in this respect: We have a tendency to look the other way as long as those great games and great moments keep coming,” Simmons adds.

On its part, the NFLPA has voiced concerns that a suitable appeals process for players needs to be worked out before testing goes forward, and given what happened in Major League Baseball, that isn’t an idle concern.  The MLB itself walked away from its steroid era relatively unscathed – if anything, it drew huge ratings and made millions in TV deals off the shattered home run records of the time.  The players, meanwhile, were demonized and shut out of the Hall of Fame. If the NFLPA is worried that its members would bear the brunt of fallout from a steroid scandal leaving the league itself to get away scot-free, they have reason.

It’s yet another complicated issue on top of many that the NFL may have to face on the coming months, Deer Antler Spray or no. Super Bowl XLVII could be the last we watch without wondering, and doubting. 

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