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National Columnist

Amusement, not outrage, over PED controversy involving Lewis

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NEW ORLEANS -- Athletes will do anything to get ahead. They'll take anything. They'll believe anything.

That's my takeaway from the Sports Illustrated story that implicated Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis on Tuesday, five days before Super Bowl XLVII, of using illegal performance-enhancing drugs to return from what doctors had told him was a season-ending torn triceps he suffered Oct. 14.

Lewis wouldn't talk about the SI report Tuesday at Super Bowl Media Day, though he did talk about his doctor-defying return.

"The doc said, 'Nobody has come back from this,'" Lewis said. "You know what? Nobody has ever been Ray Lewis before, either."

Lewis, if the SI implication is accurate, defied modern medicine thanks to an illegal spray concocted from the fuzzy coating of a growing deer's antlers. Athletes spray that stuff under their tongue to get one of the benefits from the antler velvet -- insulin-like growth factor one (IGF-1), which works in the body much like HGH -- to build more muscle tissue and speed recovery at a faster rate than the body could ever do naturally. Which is why HGH and IGF-1 are illegal in the NFL.

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So Ray Lewis allegedly cheated. That's how he returned this season from a season-ending injury. Not because he's super-human, as he suggested in his quote -- "Nobody has ever been Ray Lewis before, either" -- but because he was taking superhuman supplements.

That's one takeaway from the SI story on Tuesday, but it's not my takeaway. Ray Lewis cheated? Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. Probably we'll never know for sure, beyond the evidence thrown out there by the magazine. Did that evidence convince you? It didn't convince me, but then, I don't care either way. I can admire the investigative journalism of the story without pretending to think the story matters in the first place.

Get worked up over the notion that Ray Lewis cheated to return? Can't do it, for the same reason I can't get worked up over Lance Armstrong or any world-class cyclist cheating: In those sports, cheating doesn't get you ahead -- it pulls you even with almost everyone else. Because almost everyone else is cheating. Surely there are clean athletes in cycling and football, just like there are clean 100-meter sprinters and clean home-run hitters.

But there are dirty ones, too. Lots and lots of them. We know that. We know it so thoroughly that lots of us -- who used to get outraged that someone like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens would cheat -- can't get outraged anymore. Can't get surprised. Can't care.

What I do care about, now, is the humor of it all -- the gullibility of athletes who will do anything, take anything, believe anything, to get ahead. Forget the antler spray in that Ray Lewis report, which is funny enough, but which may actually work. What about the hocus pocus that doesn't possibly work, stuff like drinking nonexistent "negatively charged" water or attaching hologram stickers to certain body parts to counteract the thousands of cell phones being used by fans at the stadium?

It's silly, this stuff, but athletes are silly. Hey, look, I could be silly too if I thought it would help me get ahead in my own career. Tell me that a hologram attached to my elbow would make me type faster, or that chugging negatively charged water would silence the doubts in my head and unleash me at my writer's best, whatever that is, and you better believe this: I'd attach the hologram and I'd drink the water.

It's not fair to say that athletes are weak and gullible. It's more accurate to say people are weak and gullible. To this day, even after at least one supplier went bankrupt after admitting its pills didn't work, men take male-enhancement pills trying to permanently enlarge their penis. People of both sexes have worn bracelets with holograms, thinking it would improve the body's natural energy field. Whatever that is. Those bracelets still sell, even as their effectiveness has been thoroughly debunked.

Normal people do stupid things, but we don't pay attention to normal people. We do, however, pay attention to athletes. And the stuff they do, the stuff they believe, will make you giggle.

I was giggling about some of the smaller details in that Ray Lewis story, like the part where the gargantuan Alabama defensive end was suckered by a con artist pretending not to be strong enough to move the player's arm unless he held a cell phone against the player's chest. Then, voila, the arm moves! That was physiology, not cellular frequencies, but the athlete didn't know.

Athletes believe what they want. Some believe that drinking their own urine can enhance performance, so boxer Juan Manuel Marquez and MMA fighter Lyoto Machida drank up. Before the 2012 Olympics, swimmer Michael Phelps slept in a hypobaric chamber for months because he believed it helped his body produce the red blood cells needed to recover from workouts. Athletes take ADHD medication because they think the stimulants will boost their energy and focus.

Medicine or superstition? It's a little of both, probably. That's my takeaway from the Ray Lewis story that broke Tuesday, when SI described a recorded conversation between Lewis and the con artist he thought could help his torn triceps heal. The con artist detailed all the ways he could help Lewis -- the holographic stickers, the beams of light, the negatively charged water and antler pills -- before Lewis provided the money quote:

"Just send me everything you got," Lewis told the con artist.

Because Ray Lewis is an athlete, and athletes will do anything. Take anything. Believe anything.

They're just like you and me.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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