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The Ray Lewis deer-antler saga is more bad publicity for NFL

Updated: March 2, 2013 11:45AM



Well, every Super Bowl gets its theme at some point during the build-up week. Once upon a time, it was Joe Namath guaranteeing a win over the dominant Colts. Another time, it was veteran, solid-citizen Falcons safety Eugene Robinson soliciting an undercover cop posing as a hooker in Miami. Then there was Raiders center Barret Robbins, drug-addled, bipolar, disoriented, vanishing to Tijuana two days before Super Bowl XXXVII.

Now we have . . . deer antlers. Both in powder and spray form, it appears. Or at least a spray that goes not on your neck for attracting does, but under your tongue to help with muscle-building. And we have — much to the NFL’s chagrin — that polarizing agent of vast proportions — Ray Lewis.

The story? A report from Sports Illustrated says Lewis used deer-antler extract and a number of other products from a shady company called Sports With Alternatives to Steroids (SWATS) as a way to improve his conditioning and help heal the triceps he injured last October in a game against the Cowboys.

The interesting part is that SWATS claims to be a purveyor of alternatives to banned ­doping products, but its deer-antler stuff contains a growth-hormone-related substance, IGF-1, that’s on the NFL’s banned list. Adding to the dark humor, if that’s the right phrase, is the fact the NFL does not screen for IGF-1 because, as NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, there is no blood test in place to test for it.

Just as there’s no blood test in place for detecting HGH. Which, if you ask me, is in rampant use in the NFL. Love those massive triceps and deltoids all you want, fans. But they didn’t all appear from just pumping iron.

So the ban is like telling children not to eat mud. Or telling 20-year-old frat-house boys not to drink alcohol, even though there’s beer in the fridge, and we’ll never miss it if it’s gone, and nobody will be here to see if you can close your eyes and touch your nose with your forefinger.

Lewis scoffed at the report at first. He said he was ‘‘agitated’’ more than angry.

Then he said more: “It’s so funny of a story because I never, ever took what he says or whatever I was supposed to do. And it’s just sad once again that someone can have this much attention on a stage this big, where the dreams are really real.’’

Whether that was bluster and cover, we’ll never know. Lewis added, less than cheerfully, “I don’t need it. My teammates don’t need it. The 49ers don’t need it. Nobody needs it.”

All that might be true. But this is not the kind of publicity the NFL needs during its big party in New Orleans. The league thrives on its edginess and its collisions, making those things seem almost patriotic and wholesome.

But head-trauma issues and the perception among the general public that the game is not remotely safe to play, with real long-term cognitive problems the possible sad endings for players, have made the great American sport begin to become marginalized. And Lewis, who is connected to two murders from a decade ago, is not the kind of hero you want being tainted by drugs. Any kind of drugs.

One of the promises made in advertising for SWATS products, according to its owner, is that you will ‘‘never fail a drug test’’ if you use the stuff. Looks like that might be true.

Also looks like that might be irrelevant. From Ben Johnson to Lance Armstrong, passing drug tests means nothing.

Twelve years ago, I visited a deer-antler farm in northwest Nebraska.

It was productive, and the owners, a man and his wife on a small patch of land, said it was easy and fun. The deer shed the antlers, and they picked them up and sold them. To overseas markets, mostly the Far East, as I recalled. It seemed quaint and nice.

I never dreamed deer antlers, in any form, would one day taint the NFL.



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