Michael Pavitt

Julian Edelman being awarded the Most Valuable Player in last weekend’s Super Bowl caused a stir. And it was not related to his performance during the New England Patriots 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams.

The majority of reaction was created by Nancy Armour’s opinion piece in USA Today titled "Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman shouldn’t even have been playing in the game".

Armour highlighted that Edelman’s contribution to the match was worthy of the award, but highlighted how the wide receiver had missed the first four games of the NFL season for a breach of their performance-enhancing substance policy.

The comparison was made to Major League Baseball, where falling foul of their policy would result in the player concerned missing post-season fixtures.

A significant about of the response to the piece was to inform Armour that her opinion - to put it politely - was wrong.

Allegations of an anti-Patriots or anti-Edelman agenda were abused, as the piece neither set out to decry their achievements but highlight the weakness of the NFL’s anti-doping policies.

The main response to the piece was suggesting that doping cases in the NFL "didn’t matter".

There were numerous fans who openly admitted they did not care about doping in the sport, offering up several defences of players.

Julian Edelman's four game sanction was a talking point following the Super Bowl ©Getty Images
Julian Edelman's four game sanction was a talking point following the Super Bowl ©Getty Images

Aiding recovery from injury was cited repeatedly, with Edelman’s own case have been purported to come as he was battling back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

The short nature of player’s careers was given as a reason why it could be okay to take substances to help recover.

The difference in how doping offences were viewed in American football and Olympic sport were also clear.

"The NFL is entertainment which means put your biggest stars on the field," read one tweet.

"It is an entertainment business. It is really only a North American thing. Doping is the least of its problems," read another.

Perhaps viewing it through the entertainment prism should not be too surprising, after all, think of the hype that surrounds the "half-time show".

The media in the Olympic world would undoubtedly put an athlete through the ringer had they returned from a doping ban to win a major prize in the same season. By comparison Edelman appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show - perhaps the epitome of the light entertainment genre - to have his beard shaved.

As an outsider to the American sports, the culture seemed contrasted significantly to Olympic sport.

Doping appears to matter so much more in the Olympic world, with combatting doping regularly claimed by officials, athletes and fans to be the number one priority.

One response to the USA Today piece claimed the difference was that at the Olympics athletes are "sort of representing the country" meaning positive tests are viewed differently.

Maybe there is some merit to this view, but I would suggest the tribalism associated with supporting a professional team tends to see fans turn a blind eye to transgressions. Whether that is a doping offence or other misdemeanours off the field.

Fans have defended the NFL, claiming it is part of the entertainment industry rather than sport ©Getty Images
Fans have defended the NFL, claiming it is part of the entertainment industry rather than sport ©Getty Images

Perhaps some of the preaching of the Olympic world has led to the idea that athletes at the Games should be held to a higher standard.

Take for instance the often used Pierre de Coubertin quote "the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well".

The inference of athletes competing at the Olympics should have a purity, so it is no surprise that they are treated to a higher standard, when this image has been the core of the message churned out by the Olympic Movement for decades.

The comparisons were made between the paltry four-game ban received from a doping offence in the NFL and the often four-year bans in Olympic sports have been highlighted by several. The key difference is that the NFL sanctions are consistent with the policy agreed between the NFL and their players association, whereas Olympic sports are under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Code.

While there have been calls for the United States’ Anti-Doping Agency and the WADA to work to bring American professional sport under their control, the chances of this happening appear remote to nil.

Some have promoted that athletes unions have had such a significant say in anti-doping policy, pointing out the cracks in the WADA system where athletes could in some cases be handed seemingly disproportionately long sanctions compared to their transgression.

Player welfare has been a key discussion recently in the NFL, so stronger anti-doping policies seem out of place ©Getty Images
Player welfare has been a key discussion recently in the NFL, so stronger anti-doping policies seem out of place ©Getty Images

Personally, I think it also highlights the dangers of where a powerful athlete union can force through a weak anti-doping policy.

It certainly raises questions that players would be willing to support a policy when a first positive test for an anabolic steroid could result in a four-game ban, while a second could see you sanctioned for 10 games.

Compare that to the attitude among athletes in Olympic sport, where athletes have often vocally called for longer bans, including lifetime sanctions.

If you also add into the mix that concussion and struggles with weight at the end of their NFL players careers have been recent topics to have been explored regarding American football.

You would have thought that given these challenges, athlete bodies would be in favour of bigger sanctions against the use of substances which, while they could increase muscle mass and power, could lead to bigger tackles and potentially longer-term damage to player’s health.

The protection of players, including from the side effects of taking these substances, should surely a priority.

Ultimately if teams, sponsors and even fans are accepting of small sanctions for doping offences, the players would have to be the ones for changes to be made.