New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman was named Super Bowl LIII MVP. He talks returning from injury and jabs at postgame hug with Tom Brady.
ATLANTA — The NFL has some warped priorities.
Call attention to racism and discrimination, and your career is effectively over. Test positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and you can be the Super Bowl MVP.
By his play on the field, Julian Edelman was fully deserving of the honor Sunday night, carrying the New England Patriots offense for much of their 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. Of his 10 catches, eight were for first downs. Six were for 10 yards or more.
It was his 25-yard catch on third down that kept New England’s first scoring drive alive. He had another big catch on the game-winning drive.
Yet you can argue that Edelman shouldn’t even have been on the field. That he should have lost his postseason privileges as part of his punishment for trying to game the system. That his third ring is already tarnished.
It’s been seemingly forgotten now, but the wide receiver missed the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy. In Major League Baseball, that also would have meant he’d be ineligible for the postseason.
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See, when baseball passed that rule back in 2014, it did so because it didn’t seem right to have players “coming back and affecting a change in the postseason as a result of the decision that particular player made earlier in the year.” In other words, you cheat, you pay the price. An actual one with ramifications for you and your teammates, not some slap on the wrist that everyone forgets as soon as it happens.
That’s the dirty secret of the NFL, though. It doesn’t care about PEDs – at least, not enough to make the punishments tough enough to discourage their use – because the game benefits from them.
PEDs make players faster and stronger. PEDs allow players to recover faster and withstand the brutal pounding of a game that is the equivalent of a series of car wrecks. PEDs allow smaller players to hold their own against guys with six inches and 100 pounds on them.
Like, say, a receiver who is generously listed at 5-10 and 198 pounds. Who missed last season with a torn ACL.
Edelman never did say what he took, suggesting only that it was inadvertent. Of course it was. No one in the NFL actually admits to using steroids or HGH or anything else that gives him an edge or just allows him to stay on the field.
And no one cares. Not the coaches, not the teams, not the league and certainly not the fans.
If this was any other sport, we’d be howling about the sanctity of the game and how someone who cheats should be branded with a scarlet PED for the rest of his life. It wasn’t even two weeks ago, in fact, that Barry Bonds found himself shut out of baseball’s Hall of Fame yet again because he didn’t come by his home runs, or his expanded hat size, naturally.
But we don’t even bat an eye at NFL players who dope. Rarely does a month go by without a player drawing a four-game suspension for PEDs, yet the announcement draws as much attention as the endless shuffles of the practice squad.
We love the game fiercely, obsessing over stats and schemes and everything in between. But we don’t really want to know how it’s played or the heavy toll it exacts. Maybe it’s the helmets and the padding, maybe it’s the robot caricatures that Fox and advertisers use.
But rather than seeing NFL players as humans who can break and bleed, we view them as gladiator-like creatures who are immune to pain. Impervious to destruction. And the NFL is happy to perpetuate the charade.
“I was always taught as a young boy that you always just have to work hard,” Edelman said after the game. “Work as hard as you can, put in the extra time and see where it goes. Worry about what you have on your plate at that time. That’s what I have tried to do.”
If he took a shortcut or two along the way, so be it. In the NFL’s eyes, all was forgiven long ago.
But as the NFL begins a celebration of its 100th season and touts all the great things about its game, always remember that integrity isn’t one of them.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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