A winning compound?

Ever since Seahawks cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman’s got suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy last weekend, something has been bothering me.  I think it’s the Adderall.  Yes, the drug that’s probably helping you write that last ten page essay or party your face off in celebration of finishing thesis.  That original suspension wasn’t the only of its kind.  More than a few other players have been suspended over the course of the current season and the NFL is dealing with a problem big enough for the media to write about. While most people have responded to this newest performance enhancing scandal with the usual outcries of “THIS IS AN EPIDEMIC, IT MUST BE STOPPED,” I’m only surprised this hasn’t become an issue sooner.  The problem hasn’t been confined to the NFL either.  Carlos Ruiz, starting catcher for the Phillies, has also been suspended for 25 games for Adderall use.  In the middle of the off-season.  Clearly both leagues agree that Adderall is a performance enhancing drug.  However, it doesn’t enhance performance in the traditional vein-popping, syringe-injecting, muscleman way. Adderall use is far more akin to a problem Major League Baseball had in the 70s and 80s than the one it dealt with in Barry Bonds and BALCO.

The year is 1970.  The Summer of Love has just passed and people everywhere are doing drugs.  Lots of drugs.  Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis throws a no-hitter while on LSD. The same year, Jim Bouton releases his book Ball Four.  It’s less of an expose and more of a retrospective, but a retrospective that nonetheless brought the abundant use of amphetamines in baseball to the attention of everyone.  Not that the use of various amphetamines in sports was a recent development.  Players had been using what were (and still are known) as ‘greenies’ during the baseball season since the 1920s.  Since then the chronicle of drug use in sports, particularly amphetamine use and baseball, has been well documented through suspensions, arrests, and even deaths.  Players from that era openly admit to the lack of stigma against cocaine and other amphetamines.  Players took them before, during, and after games.  Their perks sometimes turned out not to be, but the increased energy, confidence, and focus the drugs gave contributed to a general goodwill towards their use in sports.  They also got the players high, which helps.  There wasn’t a specific amphetamine prescribed for every ailment.   Players just generally did them.  Eventually the leagues began cracking down, and since then health studies, a slew of suspensions, and a general shift in the American cultural paradigm have rendered the exploitation of cocaine and illegal amphetamines non-existent in professional sports aside from the occasional anomaly.

Returning to the current era, it’s easy to see why a player would use Adderall.  It is, after all, an amphetamine in the same vein of the Greenies golden era baseball players used.  Adderall offers many of the benefits rudimentary amphetamines afforded players from the seventies, but without almost any of the detriments.  Increased focus.  Extended mental stamina.  Heightened energy. Lack of appetite.  The last one might not exactly be a benefit, but Adderall holds a trump card that even anabolic steroids never fully held – legality.

Still, the legality of Adderall hasn’t stopped the league from handing out suspensions.  Rookie New York Giants safety Will Hill, despite having a prescription for Adderall, was suspended for using the substance this October.  The Phillies’ Ruiz was caught and suspended, but in reality 1 in 10 MLB players uses Adderall legally with a medical exception.  While it’s true that NFL players can often get access to prescriptions and medications that wouldn’t be available to the average, non-multimillion dollar man, Hill’s case does illuminate the areas where the Adderall ban fails.

A pro football player’s job doesn’t stop when he leaves the football field after each game, or even each practice.  He watches film.  He studies his team’s plays. He studies the other team’s plays.  So when the league bans Adderall use, that can make each of those tasks challenging for a player who actually needs Adderall to focus.  Yes, Adderall probably helps players’ performance on the field, but it also probably helps players’ more off the field.  However, any push back along this line of argument may be a product of college life, where Adderall use without a prescription as common as walks of shame.  In that sense, the NFL’s ban on Adderall is actually more akin to its marijuana use policies than any PEDs, as it directs how a player may use his time outside of games rather than within them.

Herein lays the greatest difference between any other ‘performance enhancing drug’ and Adderall.  Other PEDs have acted as useful augmentations in specific scenarios like recovery or muscle-building, but Adderall is usually prescribed and generally understood as an everyday supplement.  Even though there are specific instances where Adderall is most effective (like studying film), the perception of Adderall is as a way to right an individual’s inefficiencies and shortcomings on a daily basis.  If steroids are a way to boost a body beyond its normal limitations, taking Adderall is a tool for to maximize everything a mind and body is already capable of.  It’s the difference between a black and white distinction of normal and abnormal growth and a question of potential.  Both heuristics have their limitations, but one is based in objective science while the other is based on the eternally-unpredictable future.

The NFL and MLB have opened a can of worms when it comes to restricting ADD and ADHD medication, and while it may take years for the results to manifest, we can learn a lot about Adderall’s place in society in the process.  When I was in elementary school, finding out someone was on ADD or ADHD medication was a reason for ridicule.  In college fifteen years later, that same kid would be the subject of more unwanted attention, although of a very different kind.  Adderall has become a ubiquitous leg-up on the competition in any facet of school, and in turn business.  NCAA restrictions on Adderall use are also far more lenient than those of the NFL, in large part because their players are (say it with me) “student-athletes.”  Everyone who plays in the NCAA doesn’t end up being a professional athlete, and neither does everyone who graduates from college end up being a CEO.  Colleges realize this.  However in life, just as in business, not everyone is on a level playing field.  Some “know the right people,” others have enough financial or cultural clout that everyone wants to know them, and the rest are left with their own ambition and talents.

It seems ironic that while professional sports work hard to remain a more level playing field than society (something sports have long been lauded for), Adderall is fast becoming the golden standard for excellence.  At least part of the reason professional sports are so against PEDs is because of the moral example it sets for kids (and parents).  So it’s really beside the point who gets suspended for Adderall, and for how long – these players aren’t all trading secrets on how best to beat the system and break the game they love.  They’re just using what they’ve learned (especially in college).  Because how long will it really be before fast tracked students are given Adderall from a young age, or drug companies begin developing designer versions of the drug a la Limitless?  These ideas may be ridiculous now, but so was the notion that a player could be suspended for Adderall as a performance enhancing drug.  Maybe the NFL, MLB, and the rest of professional sports aren’t the ones out of their depth.  Maybe it’s the rest of us.

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