WHATEVER NATIONAL outrage remains over the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports—and at this point, fans' anger has mostly mellowed into tired resignation—is rarely aimed at the NFL. Perhaps because the brutality of pro football is such that it's hard to imagine players surviving for long without the help of steroids and painkillers, the league's barely hidden drug culture has never caused it nearly the embarrassment that other sports have suffered. The name of every utility infielder accused in baseball's Mitchell Report was treated as major news, but when the San Diego Chargers' Shawne Merriman, one of the NFL's top linebackers, served a four-game suspension for a positive steroids test last season, the public's general reaction was essentially, Whatever. Just tell us how it affects the point spread.
The events of last week, however, may have signaled the beginning of the end for the NFL's free pass. It's one thing for fans to ignore the occasional nabbed juicer, quite another to look the other way when the league's drug scene turns into a Martin Scorsese movie, complete with turncoat informants, electronic eavesdropping and violent death. Nick Kaczur, the New England Patriots' right tackle, is the supposed snitch, accused of wearing a wire to help federal authorities build a case against an alleged supplier of illegal prescription painkillers. In an apparently unrelated incident, convicted steroids dealer David Jacobs, who last month had given NFL investigators the names of players he said had been customers of his, was found shot to death at his home in Plano, Texas, along with the body of his girlfriend, fitness model Amanda Earhart-Savell.
The timing of Jacobs's death made it natural to wonder whether it was connected to the names he provided to the NFL. Did someone take retribution for secrets Jacobs had spilled? Or did someone shut him up before he could tell even more? Police now believe the deaths were the result of a murder-suicide, with Jacobs killing Earhart-Savell—with whom he had a stormy relationship—before turning the gun on himself. Even so, it's clear that dangerous, unstable characters are part of the drug picture in the NFL, and in all sports. This is not just an issue of asterisks and Hall of Fame candidacy anymore, or of smarmy scientists cooking up undetectable performance enhancers. It's a matter of players associating with people who can cause them great and immediate harm, both legal and physical.
Kaczur may have created exactly such a situation for himself. After he was arrested in April and charged with illegal possession of the prescription painkiller oxycodone, he allegedly cooperated with a federal sting operation against Daniel Ekasala, a Massachusetts construction worker with a record of assault charges who was his suspected supplier. A Drug Enforcement Administration agent said in an affidavit that a witness—whose name was not revealed in the document—wore a recording device during three drug buys from Ekasala last month. In each of the deals the witness bought 100 OxyContin pills from him for $3,900 in cash. According to Bernard Grossberg, Ekasala's lawyer, Kaczur was the DEA informant.
Kaczur has denied involvement in the Ekasala investigation—when asked about it by a Boston Globe reporter last week he said, "I don't know what you're talking about, bro"—but the informant's identity could become known if Ekasala, who has pleaded not guilty to three counts of possession and intent to distribute oxycodone, goes to trial. And that puts Kaczur in jeopardy. "Any time you reveal publicly that someone's been an informant, you expose him to danger," former DEA agent Michael Levine told the Boston Herald. "The danger could come from anyone he's targeted."
Could the 6'4", 315-pound Kaczur be forced to put the anonymity of offensive linemen to the ultimate test and slip into the witness protection program? Unlikely, but having a player from the league's highest-profile team linked to a DEA sting draws the kind of publicity that could finally shake fans from their see-no-evil attitude toward drug use in the NFL. While players like Merriman—who played in the Pro Bowl last year despite his suspension—and Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, who admitted taking HGH, thrive, Barry Bonds sits at home, apparently involuntarily retired from baseball, and track star Marion Jones sits in jail and in disgrace, even though neither has ever tested positive for steroids.
The stories of two little-known figures like Kaczur and Jacobs will never attract the attention that steroid headliners like Bonds, Jones and Roger Clemens get, but they may represent a tipping point at which perceptions of the NFL and its handling of drug use begin to change. With two cloak-and-dagger incidents playing out almost simultaneously, it's hard for the league to trumpet its drug policy as successful and effective, and harder still for the public to believe it.
The NFL's strategy has always been to keep moving, refusing to linger over embarrassing news. Kaczur, a starter for most of his three-year career, showed up for the Pats' minicamp last week, apparently still a member of the team in good standing despite his arrest. (The league does not test for oxycodone, but it does prohibit misuse of prescription drugs.) The team took no public disciplinary action against him, with a spokesperson saying only that it was an internal matter. In other words, the Pats plan to act as if the whole thing never happened, which is understandable since that approach has worked so well in the past. The league may never make known, for instance, the names of the players Jacobs identified as steroid buyers, choosing instead to wait for the public to be distracted by another story. It's not that the NFL doesn't care about drug use among its players, it's that the league isn't convinced—at least not yet—that the rest of us do.
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Sometimes it feels like the NFL has turned into A MARTIN SCORSESE MOVIE.
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER