To date, the NBA has been largely unscathed by the tiresome steroids scandal that has plagued baseball for the last half-decade. That changed on Thursday, when Orlando forward Rashard Lewis--one of the league's 20 best active players--was suspended for the first 10 games of the 2009-10 season for test results that showed heightened levels of testosterone in his system.
Now the question is whether Lewis' transgression is an isolated incident or if we have opened Pandora's Box. If you browse through NBA-related forums across the Web, you get many whispers and much hearsay. Most assume that in today's athletic climate, the NBA can't possibly be totally clean. Yet the league has a solid drug policy in place, one which includes testing for steroids and PEDs. To date, this has remained a non-issue for professional basketball.
I am asked, as someone who covers both the NBA and MLB, why NBA players don't use steroids. I always respond that I don't know that they don't but if it is indeed the case that they steer clear of PEDs, then it must be because the substances don't have the benefits that they apparently have for athletes in other sports.
This was the theory espoused by David Stern when he testified before a Congressional subcommittee considering the "Drug-Free Sports Act" in 2005. That legislation, which was designed to set minimum steroid-testing rules and penalties for professional sports leagues, bounced around the committee circuit in our nation's capital but never escaped, to the best of my knowledge.
Here's what Stern said at the time:
"The sport of basketball emphasizes a specialized set of physical abilities — particularly quickness, agility and basketball skill — that are distinct from those required in a number of other sports. Accordingly, illicit substances that could assist athletes in strength sports (such as weightlifting and football), power sports (such as baseball), or endurance sports (such as cycling or marathon running), are not likely to be of benefit to NBA players."
Steroids and other PEDs were added to the NBA's substance abuse policy during the last round of negotiations with the union in 2005, so at least the league didn't ignore the possibility of a problem. According to some quick Googling, the only NBA players to have been suspended for performance enhancers have been Don MacLean, Lindsey Hunter, Matt Geiger and Soumaila Samake. If that list is accurate, then Lewis is by far the highest-profile player to be caught.
In the official release sent out by the NBA, Lewis said, "“First and foremost I take full responsibility for the situation and accept the corresponding penalty. Toward the end of the season I took an over-the-counter supplement which at the time I did not realize included a substance banned by the NBA. I apologize to Magic fans, my teammates and this organization for not doing the research that should come with good judgment. I hope this unintentional mistake will not reflect poorly on our team and its great character. I hope every athlete can learn from my mistake that supplements, no matter how innocent they seem, should only be taken after consulting an expert in the field.”
Nice canned response from whoever wrote that statement for Rashard. Anyway, the relevant section of the CBA regarding PEDs indicates that 10 games is the standard. Another offense would result in a 25-game ban, a third would be one full year, and a fourth means a permanent ban.
Just as in baseball, I am agnostic about the steroids issue. Bill James recently put out an article (PDF) outlining his thoughts on steroids in baseball. He more or less has taken the stance that I've been advocating for a couple of years in my work for the Kansas City Star. Performance enhancers are a fact of life. Rather than pouring all of these resources into vilifying athletes that made choices no different than what 99% of us would have made, perhaps it would be better to legitimize the industry and work to make PEDs safe. After all, the reason that they have been declared illegal by the FDA isn't because they allow you to hit a baseball farther (if it's true that that is the case); they are illegal because they have unacceptable risks for potentially lethal side effects. Modern athletes are serving as guinea pigs for a developing arm of pharmacology that in 20 years, no one is likely to object to...if they have found ways for all of us to improve the quality of our lives.
As for the NBA, I'm willing to take Lewis at his word and view this as an isolated incident. The NBA has come a long way in cleaning up its image as a drug league, going back to the days of Marvin Barnes and, later, the lifetime suspensions handed down to excellent players in Michael Ray Richardson and Roy Tarpley. Sure there is a lingering consensus that a lot of NBA players dabble in marijuana but, to me, that is a total non-issue.
I'm hoping that the MSM reaction of Lewis's suspension isn't just another wave of self-righteous hysteria. As far as I'm concerned, the only relevance this news has is this: The Magic will lose the services of an excellent player for 10 games. But Orlando projects to be a deep team this season and when I reduce Lewis' playing time projection by 10% and up that of players like Mickael Pietrus, Matt Barnes and Ryan Anderson, I see that the Magic's win projection drops from 52 to 51. That is all that really matters.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.