Lane Johnson’s suspension and the rationality of using PEDs in the NFL

Sorry for the absence, combination of exams/vacation/world cup conspired to occupy all of my time.  Fortunately, not much has happened that needs immediate reaction.  At least until yesterday.

As everyone knows by now, Lane Johnson is looking at a likely 4 game suspension after testing positive for PEDs.  There are a few different angles to view this from, but let’s start with the most obvious, the effect on the Eagles.  Clearly, this is a big loss.  The Eagles offense is dependent on the run game, which in turn relies on the O-Line providing lanes for Shady to work with.  Losing Johnson for four games means the Eagles, regardless of how they fill Johnson’s position, will see a decline in performance at RT.  Moreover, assuming the Eagles fill the need from within (Allen Barbre is the favorite), the team is left VERY shallow at OL for the first four games.  So an injury to another member of the OL would move the unit from a team strength to a glaring weakness.

But you didn’t need me to tell you that.  That’s the easy stuff.

A more interesting angle from which to view this story is the overall use of PEDs in the NFL.  Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret about PEDs….the NFL doesn’t care! Why would they?  They make the players bigger, stronger, and faster; they don’t cost the owners anything; and the fans don’t really care either.  The only real losers in this situation are the players themselves (assuming there are long-term negative health effects from PEDs).  So why do they take them?  It’s essentially a prisoner’s dilemma.  In total, the players are probably better off if nobody uses PEDs.  However, if only a few players take them, they are significantly better off than everyone else.  Given the number of players in the league (hard to trust/coordinate with everyone) and the immense competition for every roster spot, the rational course of action for many players is to take the drugs!  Especially when the first suspension is just 4 games.  They can’t trust the testing policies to catch the cheaters, and they can’t trust the other players not to cheat.  Theoretically, they could actually advocate for very strict testing procedures during CBA negotiations, but that’s a topic for another day.

Ok, so obviously the incentives are pretty badly misaligned and there are structural issues within the league that suggests PED use should be fairly widespread.  That brings me to the next angle to this story, and the only one I think the NFL secretly cares about (if only just a little).  The Seattle Seahawks.

Did you watch them last season?  Bigger…stronger…faster.  The team, top-to-bottom, looked to be in better physical condition than everyone they played against.  Now remember they have a coach, Pete Carroll, who has a history of bending (and outright breaking) the rules.  Most glaringly (perhaps I’m burying the lede here a bit), the Seahawks have led the league in PED suspensions since Carroll took over.

Bruce Irvin…Brandon Browner…Winston Guy…John Moffit…Allen Barbre (oh shit)…Richard Sherman (overturned due to technicality)…

That’s a lot of suspensions.  But that’s not all.  Do you think EVERYONE who uses PEDs gets caught?  I don’t know enough about the testing procedures to suggest a catch rate, but we can use logic to figure this one out.  If 100% of those who used got caught, nobody would use!  Ok, maybe a couple of players who were either really stupid or simply believed their only chance was to use PEDs would still do it, but clearly it would be a very small number.  Moving a bit further, look at the penalty for using.  It’s only 4 games!  Conceptually, think about the expected value of this situation.

Option A: Don’t use PEDs, no chance of getting suspended but you are also at a competitive disadvantage.  What’s the alternative employment for most of these players?  The rookie minimum salary is $375,000.  The veteran minimum is either $450,000 or $525,000 (with 2 years of service).  What would these players earn outside the league?  10% of their NFL salary? 20%?  That makes Option A borderline irrational, at least for players on the fringe.

Option B: Use PEDs, gain competitive advantage (or at least avoid a disadvantage).  We don’t know the odds of getting caught (I personally think they’re VERY low), but let’s be extremely conservative here and say 50%.  So if you take option B, there’s a 50% chance you get away with it (at least for the first year, we can iterate this process to account for testing schedules and PED cycles but the overall point is the same).  Conversely, there’s a 50% chance you get caught.  If you do, you’re suspended for 4 games.  So using PEDs carries an expected value of missing just 2 games?  Against the benefits of using PEDs?

Here’s where I should mention that for true fringe players, the downside of getting caught isn’t limited to just the suspension, it may actually cost them their roster spot and place in the league.  However, we also have to acknowledge the likelihood that some of these players, without PEDs, wouldn’t make the team anyway.  Add in the fact that the PED catch rate is almost certainly far less than 50%, and it’s pretty clear that using PEDs is an extremely attractive risk/reward opportunity.  That ignores potential negative health effects.  That may be important to you and me, but I’d suggest that by playing football (with all of the known concussion risks) is a clear signal that these players are not placing as high a value on long-term health as other’s perhaps would.

The Seahawks appear to have this figured out.  I’m not necessarily suggesting that Seattle has an organized, team-sanctioned PED program.  They almost definitely do not.  However, I am suggesting that there’s probably a don’t-ask/don’t-tell policy, and clearly a relaxed attitude that tacitly condones PED use.  Again, that’s a perfectly rational way for Seattle to run its team.  The team-wide benefits more than outweigh the risks.  The occasional suspension is simply a cost of doing business.  Fans can complain about it and other team’s can claim the moral high ground…but the Seahawks are the Super Bowl Champions.

Enter Chip Kelly.  Unconventional coach with a college background and a history of flouting the rules and pushing the envelope?  Sound familiar? #SportsScience anyone?

Needless to say, Lane Johnson’s suspension does not surprise me.  Not even a little.  Now let’s get controversial….I expect more suspensions under Chip Kelly.  Not necessarily soon, but over the next couple of seasons.

I’m not trying to pass moral judgment here, nor am I taking a side on whether I’d support PED use or not.  Just reading the signs and coming to what I think is the most logical conclusion.  The current league incentives encourage PED use (at least until a player gets their first suspension) and I think Chip Kelly realizes it.

Lastly, this is from a 2013 ESPN article that looked at PED suspensions by team from 2010-2013.  Here are the top 5:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.33.31 AM

Note the Bengals, Texans, and Rams also had 3 suspensions each.

Here are the teams that did NOT have a PED suspension:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.35.15 AM

The NFL…if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.

 

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5 thoughts on “Lane Johnson’s suspension and the rationality of using PEDs in the NFL

  1. If you check your 1L casebook, there’s probably a section on the underpinnings of sentencing (retribution, deterrence, etc.). Under deterrence, they should have a blurb on studies looking at the effect of high arrest probability (even if it includes false positives) vs. high penalties. It’s been a while, but when I read the studies (so I can’t vouch for more recent research), the high penalties had even less deterrent effect than they logically should, while the arrest probability had more deterrent effect than expected.

    All of which is a way of saying that you’re right by saying that if the catch rate was 100%, or even near it, no one would be doing it. I think you’re right – it’s likely far less than 50%. And for many players, the severity of the penalty doesn’t even factor in to their decision making.

  2. I think my question and what we have yet to hear, is what PED was Lane taking (heck, we have not even heard if the suspension is official). To my understanding there are PED’s like HGH, steroids, etc., but there are also much more minor “ped’s” found in over the counter supplements. Heck, I probably have taking some that are on the NFL ban list as a near 40 year old trying to train for another marathon and trying to maximize recovery and training with supplements from GNC.

    I think (and this is just a purely speculative opinion) that we as a public equate PED’s to HGH, steroids, etc., when, in reality, something as simple as caffeine is technically a PED. My point is let’s not judge Lane (and for that matter Chip’s Program) too harshly (I heard crazy theories like he was taking ‘x’ for however long to convert from a QB to OT or that he had to juice to gain 7 pounds of muscle), until we know what he tested positive for.

    And I agree with the risk/reward analysis, but I would also add that it is typically human tendency to assume that ‘my catch rate’ is much less likely than the general catch rate (I will never be caught) and that skews decision making even further. We tend have a sense of over confidence in our knowledge.

  3. The unpopular view is that PEDS should not be illegal in the first place. There’s a paternalistic attitude in place that suggests somehow that sports leagues have to parent their players as if they’re little children. These are grown adults. If they want to risk their health — which they are already doing by stepping onto the football field to begin with — nobody should stop them.

    Many PEDS have actual medical uses. Under supervision, PEDS can be administered safely by real doctors. It’s the unsupervised abuse of PEDS that can lead to harm over time by taking too much. Football, in particular, is part physical but part mental. PEDS don’t help the mental aspect of playing the game.

    I don’t think PEDS are going away. Ever! There are two solutions: One is for the league to be absolved of any responsibility for the player’s future health. Make the players sign a waiver before administering PEDS, and then use them responsibly and under supervision. The other is to test 100 percent of the players in timely intervals so nobody can get away with using them illegally.

  4. Chemistry is complicated. The human body chemistry even more so. I’m no scientist but I assume over the past 20 years PED’s have come a long way and the people administering them even more. People immediately , I think, jump to the “steroid” conclusion. Is that fair though ? I feel as if all of this PED hoopla is lip service to the fans and media who are still tainted by the stories of all the negative health benefits of steroids from the 80’s and 90’s.

    I may be wrong though. Still, it seems to me like a lot of this testing is there to stop the hardcore use probably catches a lot of smaller inconsequential uses as well. A lot of this is contextual as well. I’m more than willing to believe that a lot of this stuff is probably cutting edge “supplements”(however you want to define that) that show up in tests.

    Like I started with. Chemistry is complicated.

  5. The catch rate is far less than 50% for PEDs. I have seen former players/coaches say that up to 50% of the NFL most likely uses PEDs and consider only a handful gets caught every year, the catch rate is very small.

    Until there is a big scandal like there was a cycling, fans wont care. The moment somebody snitches show the PEDs are actually more widespread and maybe even team administrate, fans wont care.
    Hell fans forget super easy, as nobody really thinks about a guy like Brian Cushing getting taken for PEDs (looking at him, he is most likely still using).

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