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:
Note the Bengals, Texans, and Rams also had 3 suspensions each.
Here are the teams that did NOT have a PED suspension:
The NFL…if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.