Three Thoughts About Rashard Lewis and Performance-Enhancing Drugs

Orlando Magic forward Rashard Lewis has been suspended for violating the NBA's policy banning performance-enhancing drugs. Three immediate reactions:

Heinous Excuse
For no good reason, I'm inclined to believe Rashard Lewis when he says his use of DHEA was unintentional, and that he had no idea it was part of an over-the-counter supplement.

However: How many athletes have used that excuse? At this point, I think it's up to 1.2 zillion.

Even just in the NBA, Darius Miles was similarly mystified last fall.

It's about to stop being an OK excuse.

Memo to all athletes: If you go down to the place where all the muscle heads buy supplements, and you buy anything, and you take it, you're putting yourself in a high-risk category to fail one of these tests. At some point, not knowing is not good enough. Therefore, if it's important to you not to take performance-enhancing drugs, either don't take those supplements, or do some serious research first, and stand by your decisions.

No Small Penalty
Rashard Lewis will be suspended for 10 games to start the season, which will cost him slightly more than $1.6 million in salary. This must be one of the most expensive drug tests in history.

But that's not all. The Collective Bargaining Agreement calls for a first positive test for performance-enhancing drugs (SPEDS or "Steroids or Performance Enhancing Drugs" in NBA parlance) to be accompanied by a 10-game suspension and treatment in the league's SPED program. (A second failed test means a 25-game suspension, a third a year suspension, and a fourth banishment from the league.) I'm curious to know what that program entails.

Will Lewis endure the treatment program if we believe he took this supplement only by accident? And if we don't believe him ... what does that say? Are the Sixers going to want a do-over after Lewis killed them in Game 6 of last year's playoffs? How about the Celtics (Lewis was tremendous in Game 3) or Cavaliers (he was 9-13 from the floor as the Magic stole Game 1)?

Big Questions
Football, baseball, cycling, track and field, swimming, weightlifting ... all kinds of sports have faced brutal questioning about performance-enhancing drugs. But not so much basketball.

I have been asking NBA people for a decade. They all say the same things: that they haven't seen it, and that the kinds of muscles people get from steroids wouldn't help in basketball.

Even if we accept all that as once true, performance-enhancing drugs have evolved at a more advanced pace than these blanket denials. Especially as the list of violators grows: Matt Geiger, Don McLean, Soumaila Samake, Lindsey Hunter, Darius Miles and now Rashard Lewis.

Not to mention, athletes in all sports have been getting bigger, stronger and faster. In many of the other sports, some of that has been attributed to cheating. But not in basketball.

Is that because basketball has been cleaner, or less scrutinized?

When Miles tested positive, Dave from BlazersEdge captured the sentiment nicely:

If you ask me if I think performance-enhancing drug use is rampant in the NBA I will say that I don't think so, but I'm not certain. If you ask me whether I trust the NBA to be vigilant against PED's or to take care of the problem if it already has one, I will say no. If you ask me if the NBA could be more invested in protecting players rather than revealing them, I'd say there's considerable incentive for them to do so.

It's not so much that my suspicion is overwhelming, it's that my trust is thin.

No, we don't have cause to cast suspicion all around the NBA. But surely we're also losing our ability to laugh these kinds of things off as aberrations.

Google terms like "genetic enhancement" and "human growth hormone." It is undeniable that in 2009 there are myriad ways NBA athletes could get ahead by cheating. Running faster and jumping higher is only the beginning. Recovering faster -- from surgery or a grueling schedule -- building muscle ... elite basketball players can benefit from such things. And with that reality, it seems inevitable that the NBA will not stay above the drugs fray for too long.