Following a couple of very different announcements by the NBA over the past few days, the topic of performance enhancing drugs is back atop the league's list of talking points. And along with it, a question: Does the NBA have a problem with PEDs?
On Feb. 6, NBA Commissioner David Stern spoke hopefully about the institution of testing for human growth hormone as soon as next season. That'd be a huge step for a league that had had just seven PED-related suspensions in its history at the time Stern made his announcement.
The Turkoglu Incident
And just one week later, Hedo Turkoglu became No. 8.
The NBA announced on Feb. 13 that the Orlando Magic forward would serve a 20-game ban after testing positive. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated broke the news early on Feb. 13:
Hedo Turkoglu has been suspended for 20 games for testing positive for methenolone, the NBA says— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) February 13, 2013
As is the common course in situations like this, Turkoglu claimed to have taken the banned substance, an anabolic steroid, accidentally (per The Associated Press' Kyle Hightower). Whether that's true or not, it sounds precisely like what confirmed and suspected cheats in other sports have said after a failed test.
Considering the relatively low number of PED-related suspensions in NBA history and the near total lack of high-profile stars among the guilty—O.J. Mayo in 2011 and Rashard Lewis in 2009 come closest—one of two distinct possibilities emerge: Either the NBA is the cleanest of all major American sports or its drug-testing program is the easiest to beat.
Henry Abbott of ESPN.com made a compelling argument that the latter seems likely in an extensive article last November, and much of what he outlined there bears repeating.
In summary, we know that the NBA tests players a maximum of four times during the regular season and twice during the summer. We also know that players are given advance notice of the tests, which, combined with the careful practice of microdosing, allowed Lance Armstrong to pump himself full of a cocktail of PEDs without detection for years.
Referring to the ease of avoiding detection that comes from microdosing, Abbott wrote, "the drugs, and their delivery, have come a long way. Now, some simply can't be detected. But others are taken only in tiny amounts—microdoses—that clear the body in a matter of hours."
All of that is a roundabout way of saying that NBA players could very easily circumvent blood tests if they act carefully. But considering that there's presently no such test, it seems blatantly obvious that all but the sloppiest instances of cheating are probably going undetected at present.
But arguing that cheating is easy is a long way away from proving that it's actually happening. But that's where history and logic help bridge the gap.
Everyone was embarrassed by the collective naivete that allowed near universal praise for and enjoyment of the power exploits of Major League Baseball in the 1990s. And we've all been recently reminded of the presence of cheating in professional cycling.
In both instances, the narrative was the same. Everyone assumed things were clean, and then the whispers started. At that point, people began to suspect there were a few bad apples, but wouldn't accept that impropriety was rampant.
Until the entire bunch proved rotten.
The NBA is in phase two of that process right now, in that the whispered questions are growing louder. Maybe Stern's purported testing program will help the league avoid the fate suffered by cycling and MLB.
But maybe whichever NBA players are cheating will simply find a way around the new tests.
In any case, PED scandals almost never diminish as time goes on. Once the revelations start, history has shown us that the tip of the iceberg almost always belies a massive glacier beneath the surface.
It's a tired argument, but in this instance, it bears repeating: With virtually no risk of detection and millions of dollars to gain, who wouldn't cheat?
Toss in the fact that NBA players are elite, ultra-competitive athletes, and the "logic" of PED use seems even more plausible.
Look, the moralistic argument that PED use is somehow objectively "wrong" is losing viability. Advanced treatments like platelet-rich plasma injections and new rehab techniques continue to make formerly strict distinctions between "cheating" and good science more and more arbitrary.
Athletes will always look for an edge, and it's a little unrealistic to think that search conveniently excludes easily obtainable, hard-to-detect performance enhancers.
Yeah, but So What?
This is the problem, though, right? No matter how the logic, history and speculative whispers combine, arguing that the NBA has a PED problem is still nothing more than an exercise in guesswork.
The fact is that only eight players have been caught, and there's just no getting around it.
A new, more rigorous testing program will help, but we know that the crooks are always a step ahead of the cops in situations like this. New methods to avoid detection will forever outpace the testing procedures; that's the way it has always been.
Personally, I suspect the NBA has a much more serious PED issue than eight positive tests would make it seem. But suspicion (albeit supported by history and logic) is all I or anyone else has when it comes to things like this.
That's an unsatisfying conclusion, but for now, it's the only one we can fairly draw.