The NBA suspended Hedo Turkoglu yesterday for testing positive for an anabolic steroid. He became just the eighth player caught by the league's anti-drug policy. He also became the second player from the Magic to get caught in the web of PEDs in the league after Rashard Lewis tested positive for a banned substance during the 2009 Playoffs and missed the first 10 games of the 2010 season.
David Stern will tell you his league does not have a PED problem. Neither would Jacque Vaughn who said PEDs are not a problem in the league. And players would say the same thing. It is a somewhat ignored issue in the NBA.
And likely Turkoglu's suspension will not change that either.
However, several reporters, learning the lessons from watching steroid users in baseball, football and cycling, know that it is folly to think this is an isolated problem. Too much is indeed wrapped in to performing at a high level in professional sports leagues for these players and this league to play ignorant.
Ironically, Turkoglu said essentially the same thing Wednesday when quizzed about the positive drug test. He said that, while back in his native Turkey during the off-season, his trainer gave him a medication to help him recover more quickly from a shoulder injury. "I didn't know that this was a banned substance and didn't check before taking it," Turkoglu said.
Sorry, but I'm not buying Turkoglu's explanation, and neither should you. As sports fans, we've been deceived too many times to give any drug cheat the benefit of the doubt. Seemingly every athlete ever suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs lies, cries and denies before ultimately being forced to come clean (see Armstrong, Mark McGwire, et al.).
A more likely and believable story is that Turkoglu, 34, is an aging athlete who saw his ability drastically decreasing and was desperately looking for a shortcut to prolong his career. I also think Turkoglu is just one of many NBA players on PEDs.
It is a bit unfair perhaps to lump Turkoglu in with those names. But maybe it is not. The substance Turkoglu tested positive for is the same one Alex Rodriguez tested positive for. And as many are saying today — and have said upon deaf ears for a while — if steroids are used to help rehabilitate injuries and get stronger and faster then why can't basketball players use it?
In any event, the NBA's PED policy and testing regimen is considered the worst among the four major American sports by the World Anti-Doping Agency and is something that the league has sort of ducked its head under and assumed it is not a problem. This sure sounds like baseball in the early-2000s.
And that is not a place the league wants or should want to be.
Granted, this could all be some crazy coincidence. It is hard to envision a person whose sole job is to take care of his body not to know what he is putting in or on his body while recovering from injury, but it is also easy to see how mistakes can be made. DHEA, the substance Rashard Lewis tested positive for in 2009, is not illegal in the United States but is banned by many major sports organizations.
Mistakes can happen. Lewis and Turkoglu are nice guys and mainly role players so we want to give them the benefit of the doubt. The coincidence though is too apparent not to at least mention however. You do not want to draw conclusions, but you do want to raise your eyebrows some.
Are PEDs a problem in the NBA?
Henry Abbott of TrueHoop put it best: I don't know. No one can know except the players and the league. Not until someone blows the whistle and the lid gets blown open. That does not seem likely. There does not appear to be a Jose Canseco in the wings.
But to think no NBA player has not intentionally taken steroids is naive. And it has happened — I know of one report from a reliable reporter of at least one former Magic player from the earlier years of the organization who took PEDs while he was playing — and it will happen again.
Whether the NBA wants to take action and more concrete steps to figure out how best to handle this issue is completely up to them.