Steroid inquiry could affect Mitchell
Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The first full calendar month of the NFL offseason is March, but it will hardly be a quiet break for the Carolina Panthers or for the league. That is when the trial of Dr. James Shortt is expected to begin in Columbia, S.C., and a potentially damaging connect-the-dots could be revealed involving the Panthers and illegal steroids.
The federal investigation of Shortt, who has been indicted on 43 counts involving the distribution of steroids, has already touched the team and the NFL. There have been reports, led by The State newspaper in Columbia, that as many as nine former or current Panthers saw Shortt. There have been allegations that some received illegal prescriptions for steroids during the 2003 season.
That was the season that Carolina made it to the Super Bowl for the only time in team history, a playoff run that brought pride to the franchise and erased memories of its earlier failings. As the Panthers start the playoffs with today's wild-card game against the New York Giants at the Meadowlands, the exhilaration of that drive to the championship game two years ago lingers.
Questions about steroid use during that period also linger.
A CBS News report last March implicated three players from that Panthers team: center Jeff Mitchell, tackle Todd Steussie and punter Todd Sauerbrun. Mitchell, a former Gator, is the only one still with the team. The retired offensive guard Kevin Donnalley, who also started in the Super Bowl season, was later named in a report in The Charlotte Observer.
Last month, the name of tight end Wesley Walls came up in a pretrial hearing. Walls, who did not play for the Panthers during the 2003 season and is now retired, told the newspaper that he saw Shortt once and never returned. He is one of the few to speak about Shortt, albeit briefly. It is a subject that typically draws little or no comment from the Panthers organization.
Had any of the Panthers tested positive for steroids in 2003, or any other year, they would have been suspended automatically for four games under league rules. There were no suspensions for failed drug tests in 2003.
"There's two issues when you look at drug testing," Dr. Gary I. Wadler, a New York University professor, a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency and an expert on steroids and sports, said during a telephone interview Wednesday. "One is the limitations of science, and the other is the limitation in policy."
Steroid detection remains an ongoing scientific chase for the World Anti-Doping Agency and almost all sports leagues. As for policy, the NFL has worked to address concerns raised by the Shortt revelations. The league and the players union agreed last spring to upgrade testing procedures, making them more stringent and frequent.
But these allegations have tarnished the NFL's reputation for having the gold standard for steroids testing among professional sports leagues. "At the end of the day, if it was a perfect program, everybody who was using would be known," Wadler said. "There'd be no loopholes.
"I don't think they've come anywhere near where they need to be."
What might push the league to seek changes to its policy? Barring a plea agreement, perhaps a trial that reveals loopholes. Marty Hurney, Carolina's general manager, said last March that some Panthers were sought by the Drug Enforcement Administration as witnesses in the investigation. There is no word yet if players will be called to testify during the coming trial.
But whatever is revealed about the players and the NFL testing process, Wadler said he did not expect this trial to become a watershed for the sport or steroids testing.
"Do you realize how many watershed moments there have been over the last few years?" he said. "We're not going through a moment, we're going through a process. And this is an ongoing process. This is just one more notch in the belt."
Meanwhile, the NFL and the Panthers have concluded their investigations. Again, no players were suspended.
"The issues have been addressed and the matter is closed," the NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "We don't have anything further to say on it right now."
Hurney and coach John Fox offered similar sentiments.
"It's something the league investigated and they're satisfied," Fox said after practice Wednesday. "So are we."
Nor will the Panthers allow the revelations to taint what they accomplished in the 2003 season, when they barely lost Super Bowl XXXVIII to the New England Patriots.
"I haven't even really thought about that and I don't think anybody really thought about that and that run being tainted," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "I mean, for somebody sitting around thinking about it, it could be a valid question. Do we believe in that? I don't think that that run was tainted at all. I think that we were a football team that worked very hard to get where we got and we just fell a little bit short, and we have an opportunity two years later to do that again and have a different outcome."
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