- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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The NFL lockout is starting to look like something you might find on at 3 a.m. on Encore Southwest, assuming such a thing exists. It's a low-budget B-movie with a paint-by-numbers plotline. The monolithic company shows cracks in its armor for the first time in memory. A rival league manages to get a mole into the behemoth's inner circle and reprogram everyone's brain to destroy the monster from the inside out. Those who manage to survive the reprogramming are shipped off and held hostage, strapped to concrete pillars far above the Oakland Coliseum. And every 15 minutes or so, just for fun, the director cuts to a shot of Bud Selig sitting at a control panel, randomly flipping levers and laughing mirthlessly.
The latest gambit from the NFL can only be explained by bad fiction. The league is threatening -- oh, sorry, mulling is the word of the day if you judge by the headlines -- to bring in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to implement testing for performance-enhancing drugs if the courts decide the league must operate without a collective-bargaining agreement.
You want to destroy the NFL as we know it? If you collected 20 of the smartest sports minds in the world to address that question, it wouldn't be long before someone would stand up and say, "I've got it. This is the worst idea ever: Bring in WADA to handle drug testing."
Neither side wants this. It's not even open for discussion or consideration or the all-important mulling. If you want to ruin whatever it is you like about the NFL, whether it's the speed or the hitting or the way your favorite defensive end comes back from an allegedly debilitating knee injury to play the following week, bring in WADA to do the drug testing.
And if you really want the league to self-destruct, bring in WADA and add two games to the regular season. That way, in 20 years people can make documentaries about the demise of the NFL while billions worldwide sit around and wait for the commercials while we watch the Omaha Nighthawks play the Sacramento Mountain Lions in the UFL championship game.
The only reason this little mull of self-destruction is even on the table is because the courts might end the lockout and give the NFL carte blanche to make its own rules in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement. If that happens, the decertified union would be powerless to stop it, although individual players could come together to file a suit to challenge whatever twists the plotline has in store for them.
For the most part, the NFL could operate as a rogue league. Roger Goodell could decide to mandate styrofoam helmets and the only recourse the players would have is to hire a lawyer. You might say that's an overreaction to equate something so ludicrous to the idea of bringing in WADA and its blood testing -- HGH, anyone? -- to run the drug program. Maybe, but it's not that far off. A two-year suspension for a positive A and B sample? That's the WADA way. You think cycling is a mess? Multiply the carnival-like drama that surrounds cycling by about a million and you've got a pretty good idea of a WADA/NFL marriage.
Oh, but let's hear the chorus: If you don't have anything to hide, why would you care? Gene Upshaw got a lot of scorn for fighting blood tests for PEDs because he didn't want his members "used as pin cushions," but he was right with the concept if clumsy with the words. Once the NFL has blood samples from every player, does it stop with HGH and anabolics and other PEDs? What about diseases and pre-existing conditions and other stuff that could impact pensions and medical insurance and disability payments? We're talking about a pretty high-risk industry here, and players need to take every precaution to keep what they've got -- especially when the other side has shown its willingness to swing its monopolistic, state-sponsored hammer with impunity.
The NFL is losing the public-relations battle. Even fans who reflexively side with management over the supposedly overpaid and ungrateful players are wise enough to see this lockout for what it is: a money grab by owners who have a whole lot but want more. So what better way to curry favor with the public than mounting the old PED hobbyhorse and riding off under the guise of looking after the players' health and making the sport fair for everyone?
They fail to understand a central point: Most NFL fans seem to have reached an angle of repose when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. They don't know the extent of it, but they can guess a little bit, and they're OK with the idea that a lot of these guys probably have to do something extra to play such a brutal game at such a high level week after week.
There is precious little of the high dudgeon reserved for baseball, where every outfielder's trip to GNC brings about a plaintive wail about soiling boyhood memories of fresh-cut grass and a new glove and having a catch with dad after work. Maybe because most people never envisioned themselves being able to play in the NFL, everybody is a little more lenient when it comes to whatever substances guys put into their bodies to provide a nation with Sunday entertainment.
It's safe to say rational folks assumed the NFL would act differently if the courts lifted the lockout and allowed the league to proceed under its own judgment. They assumed the NFL would choose to continue under the terms of the previous agreement, which is the way things usually work when employers don't want to thoroughly destroy their employees' morale and willingness to work.
And so, assuming there are still logical people at work in NFL HQ, the only conclusion is this: The WADA threat is just that -- a threat. It's a threat to get the players back to the bargaining table, a threat to let them know the league understands its status may allow it to impose even the most damaging unilateral decree.
The other possibility is too preposterous to accept. The idea that the NFL actually sees this as a solution to a problem? That's too ludicrous for even the worst B movie.