AS THE TATTOO on his right forearm and the customized headrests and floor mats in his Mercedes G500 proclaim, Shawne Merriman is lights out. The Chargers' linebacker and NFL sacks leader uses the handle in honor of his habit of dropping concussive—and, as we now know, chemically enhanced—hits on overmatched ball carriers. But Lights Out took on a slightly different meaning last week. Merriman missed practice on Friday because of a migraine, and as a longtime sufferer, he knew what to do. "I just go to a dark room and don't even try to do anything," he said. "You can't fight it."
The NFL has taken the same approach with the headaches Merriman gave the league: Close your eyes, be quiet and wait till it goes away. A week before the missed workout, Merriman, 22, last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, was named to his second Pro Bowl despite the four-game suspension he served this season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. That honor is voted on by the league's coaches and players, as well as fans. Merriman is also a leading candidate to be named the league's Defensive Player of the Year, a title bestowed by members of the media.
Merriman tested positive for the steroid nandrolone, a drug he says he never knowingly took and must have ingested through—drumroll, please—a tainted supplement. That's his story, and he's sticking to it. Not that it matters anymore. When the subject is football, we are either very forgiving or very forgetful. Merriman is a ferocious and speedy linebacker who finished with 17 sacks and four forced fumbles in 12 games. That's good enough for most people, if not Jason Taylor, the Dolphins' defensive end who complained last week that "you really shouldn't be able to fail a test like that and play in this league to begin with."
What makes the ethos of football interesting, instead of merely depressing, is that it is so different from the baseball player's world. In baseball, even the suspicion of drug use is a legacy killer. If he came out of hiding, you could ask Mark McGwire, who will almost certainly still be a non--Hall of Famer when this year's inductees are announced on Jan. 9. Ditto for Rafael Palmeiro, who was drummed out of the sport in disgrace two months after he joined the 3,000-hit club because of a positive test. And ditto for Barry Bonds, whose breaking of a hallowed mark is an event being dreaded, not celebrated, by baseball.
The baseball scandal that began to brew last week underscores the difference between the sports, or rather how the players are viewed by their respective publics. On Dec. 27 a federal appeals court ruled that prosecutors in the BALCO investigation were entitled to the urine samples and names of more than 100 major leaguers who tested positive for steroids in 2003. The testing, a survey to determine if the sport needed a mandatory program (it did), was agreed to by the players' union only after it was assured that the results would be anonymous and quickly destroyed.
The existence of the black list is sure to spark finger-pointing between players and owners, and the union has vowed to fight the ruling. The court battle could last until 2008. If the past is any indication, it's only a matter of time, though, before names on the list leak out, creating a nightmare for the players involved, albeit a nightmare of their own making. For starters, consider the ongoing perjury investigation against Barry Bonds, who told the BALCO grand jury in 2003 he never knowingly took steroids. The case against Bonds could be bolstered if there is finally hard evidence that the Giants slugger failed a drug test.
But Bonds has already been tainted, by the book Game of Shadows and by his own behavior, in the wake of steroid allegations. Based on the court ruling, scores of other players, including All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, may be having trouble sleeping these long winter nights, knowing that they are on the verge of being exposed as steriod users and going down in history with that simple, indelible epitaph.
Why the double standard? Perhaps drug use in the NFL is more excusable because football is a game that pushes the limits of civilized behavior. Speed, power and violence are everything. In baseball it's statistics, the links that bind the generations in our most history-conscious game, that are sacrosanct. Watching a pumped-up linebacker level a quarterback gets America's pulse racing. Watching a steroidal slugger take aim at baseball's monuments sickens America's stomach.
So with McGwire, Palmeiro and other former baseball stars in an open-ended exile, Merriman takes the position that he has served his time—hey, it was four full weeks, baby—and paid his fine, and he has no suffering left to do. Indeed he is leading San Diego into the playoffs, primed to burnish his growing legend further. And while baseball cheaters can probably never apologize enough, Merriman offers only a lawyered mea culpa and a hollow excuse.
Taylor, as one of the few voices criticizing Merriman, knew he had to choose his words carefully: "To make the Pro Bowl and all the other awards," Taylor said, "I think you're walking a fine line of sending the wrong message." But Merriman, in response, said he didn't care what Taylor or anyone else said. He also sent Taylor a T-shirt and hat adorned with his lights out logo. As a final touch he included a bag of popcorn—so, Merriman said, Taylor "can watch us in the playoffs."
Welcome to the NFL.
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ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO