It was several weeks ago when future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates received a notification from the NFL that he had violated the league's performance-enhancing drug policy and would be suspended four games. Gates' reaction?
"He was completely and totally shocked," a Chargers team source said.
Soon after the notification, the source explained, Gates spoke to members of the organization and coaching staff and told them he was innocent. He insisted, repeatedly, he did not know the substance he was taking was illegal. He then released a statement saying the same:
In my 12 years in the NFL, I have taken tremendous pride in upholding the integrity of the NFL shield and all it entails. I have taken extreme care of my body with a holistic approach and I have never knowingly ingested a substance that was banned by the NFL. In an effort to recover from this past season, I used supplements and holistic medicines, and unfortunately, I have now learned that those substances always present a risk because they main contain banned substances even if the ingredient list doesn't reflect them. As an NFL veteran and team leader, I should have done my due diligence to ensure that what I was taking for recovery was within the NFL guidelines. I understand that I am responsible for what was in my body and I have always believed that ignorance is no excuse when it comes to these issues. I take full responsibility for my actions. I'd like to express my sincere apologies to the Chargers, my teammates, coaches, fans and the league who have always supported me and expected and gotten nothing but the highest level of integrity from me.
Do the Chargers believe Gates? Yes, I'm told they do. They cite his track record of never testing positive for anything illegal in the past. Does anyone outside of the organization believe Gates? Hell no.
What I know for certain is that whether Gates was trying to cheat or not, he has doomed the Chargers. In terms of winning the division, they're done. It's over. And I'm not so sure they can make the playoffs without Gates.
I think the Chargers will start 2-2 at best and maybe even 1-3. Peyton will probably start off hot. The Broncos could gain the lead and keep it the rest of the season.
This isn't trolling or hyperbole. Last year, Gates finished with 12 touchdown catches. That tied him with Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas to lead all tight ends. The Chargers went 9-7 even with him having a resurgent year. There's no way he can duplicate that with a four-game suspension.
It's possible Gates' resurgence was because of PEDs. Whatever it was, without that threat, the Chargers are far less multidimensional. And please don't tell me about his backup, Ladarius Green. Not the same. Green won't keep defensive coordinators awake at night the way Gates does. The way Gates always has.
Like just about everyone else in the NFL, I chuckled when hearing Gates say his failed PED test was an accident. I envisioned him walking down the street, tripping over a bottle of pills and wondering: Hey, how did those get there? Maybe I should try one and see what happens!
An accident is mistakenly sitting on a syringe. Or hanging with Alex Rodriguez and his cousin.
Gates sounds like every other PED excuse-maker. Like saying you failed a drug test because of a fertility drug. Or penis enlargement. Or spiked toothpaste. Or steroid-fed veal or a massage therapist using zany creams or a vanishing twin.
Lance Armstrong lied for decades. Mark McGwire lied. Barry Bonds lied. Sammy Sosa went before Congress and suddenly his words failed him. Rafael Palmeiro finger-waved. When it comes to athletes and PEDs, it's been LOL on top of LOL on top of LOL.
Then came Gates. I was ready to scoff and mock, but then, something happened.
Scott Fujita, who played in the NFL for nearly a decade, is one of the smartest and most ethical people I've ever known in any walk of life. He saw a series of my tweets on Gates and then offered some important context.
I asked on Twitter how someone accidentally ingests PEDs. Fujita wrote back:
Fujita refers to the infamous StarCaps case where three Vikings players sued the league claiming it was unfair they were suspended for a banned ingredient that wasn't listed on the supplement they were taking.
When Fujita played, he didn't take chances with homeopathics, but some veterans do. And when they do, they are sometimes careless.
None of this excuses Gates. All he had to do was show the supplement he wanted to use to the union or team trainer, ask if it was permissible and wait for an answer. It's that simple.
It's possible that by not doing that—and there's no question he didn't, because if he did, he would have said so publicly—Gates was giving himself cover.
What also happens is the PED universe changes quickly. The NFL's testing procedures get better all the time. What was undetectable yesterday can sometimes be tracked today.
Do I believe Gates? No, not really. But I do think, based on what Fujita explained, and my trust in Fujita's every word, there's a chance this could be one of the few cases, maybe the first, where the violator might actually be telling the truth.
It's a 1 percent chance, but it's a chance.
Even if Gates was playing the entirety of this season, the Chargers needed to be almost flawless for them to pass Peyton Manning and the Broncos. I'm not even sure the Chargers are better than the Chiefs now. The Chiefs also finished 9-7 last year.
There's a remote chance Gates is one of the few PED frauds who might not actually be a fraud.
He still killed his team's season, though. The Chargers are dead.