Neil Francis: Guns, steroids, rugby and the NFL - Darkness and light in disunited States
Country of extremes summed up by mind-boggling gun culture, while attitudes to steroid use continue to amaze, as does the behemoth that is the NFL
There have been many atrocities committed around the world for many reasons over the last 10 or 20 years. The one that stands out for me was the massacre of the innocents at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The massacre took place on December 14, 2012. I happened to be in the United States at that time and witnessed the blanket coverage of the outrage. It had a profound effect on me.
Some time before 9.30am a withdrawn and disturbed 20-year-old named Adam Lanza murdered his mother with her own Bushmaster XM15, which is a semi-automatic assault rifle. Lanza then drove in his mother's car to the Sandy Hook Elementary School where, at 9.34am, he gained access to the building. Approximately five minutes later, Lanza ended his own worthless life with a Glock pistol shot to the head. Prior to this he managed to shoot and kill 20 children - eight boys and 12 girls aged between six and seven. He also shot six female staff who had tried to protect or hide the children from this monster.
It goes beyond easy understanding how somebody can do such a thing. Nobody can legislate for this sort of volatility, for the machinations of the criminally insane and the random and fickle nature of crimes like this. What is beyond any doubt is that these children were just old enough to comprehend what was happening and what was about to happen. The teachers, there to protect and educate, knew the gravity and the awfulness of their predicament from the first gunshot. This moment in time should in any structured society have been a staging post for change.
In the immediate aftermath the American President Barack Obama openly wept on national television when trying to address the nation. Most right-thinking people guessed the reason for his outpouring of grief had much to do with the hopelessness of the situation and the grim reality of his impotence in terms of introducing sweeping reforms on gun control.
Three weeks later, I read in one review on the crime in the quality press that sales of the Bushmaster XM15 had soared in that period of time and had done so for two reasons: Firstly, there were fears that the weapon would be banned, dealers realised there would be a profit to be made if something could not be purchased through normal channels and they bought up large numbers of the weapon; secondly, the weapon itself - and you have to take a good deep breath here - had done such a good job that some people felt compelled to buy it. There are no words.
In the months that followed, federal and state legislation was proposed, banning the sale and manufacture of certain types of semi-automatic firearms and magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition. President Obama signed 23 executive orders and proposed 12 Congressional Actions regarding gun control. His proposals included universal background checks on firearms purchases, an assault weapons ban and limiting magazine capacity to 10 cartridges. This proposed legislation in the first session of the 113th Congress was defeated in the Senate on April 17, 2013, mere months after the atrocity was committed.
After noticing that there were about 25 gun magazines in the Barnes & Noble Bookstore close to me in Florida, I was drawn to see what I could actually buy in the pages of these magazines and was shocked to learn that virtually any type of sub-machine gun could be purchased with the minimum of hassle. I walked into a local firing range and was amazed at the choice of weapons available for sale or to use at the firing range. In the main photograph on this page I am holding a Bushmaster XM15. To buy, this would set me back $3,500 (€3,300), but I could get 250 rounds of ammunition as a special deal to purchase this gun. All I required was a driving licence. I did not need a letter to say that I did not suffer from any psychiatric or mental illness or that I was in any way an unfit person to purchase such a weapon. I assured the young lady at the counter that I did not have a criminal record. That would be that, job done!
As the young lady put the gun back on the shelf I noticed that right beside the dozen or so Bushmasters there were also about a dozen Armalite automatic and semi-automatic assault rifles. These were a bit cheaper, ranging from $1,500 to $2,900 (€1,400-€2,700). I was asked if I would like to try that weapon for size and so I got to know what it feels like to have an Armalite in my hands.
I asked if there were any ballot boxes that go with this weapon? She didn't understand my question and asked would I consider buying the gun. I told her that there were some sitting members of parliament in Dublin who would be able to get me a far better deal than that.
"How so?" "Apparently they can do a bulk discount." Two rows down there was an AK47 section, these were considerably cheaper at $700 (€660) a unit - clearly these are for lower-end users.
In the United States, there are roughly 112 guns per 100 people. You can empathise with Obama's sense of helplessness with this situation. As Donald Trump takes office, it isn't going to get any better.
A survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimated that half a million eighth to tenth grade students (the equivalent of second year to fourth year in Ireland) were using anabolic steroids. Another study estimated that close to 1.5 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 have used anabolic steroids. They are some pretty serious numbers.
Now, that information is over a dozen years old so I suspect that numbers have subsequently risen and not decreased. There is no reason to presume otherwise. I bought a magazine called Flex. It is for bodybuilders. It was positioned right beside the gun magazines. I have no interest in bodybuilding but I do find the whole concept humorous and I have watched a number of documentaries on the subject. I do like to keep abreast of what these guys are taking. (It's a bit like saying 'I buy Playboy for the features'.) I buy these bodybuilding magazines to look at the advertisements and see what they are using.
Quite often what is good for bodybuilders doesn't necessarily translate into increased efficiency and strength for rugby players and athletes. Bodybuilders are what they are and when you see any of the pages in these magazines you can tell straight away that many of these people ingest enormous amounts of steroids. The tell is in the face. It is an homogeneous face - they all look the same. Unfortunately, they all die the same too - in their 40s or early 50s.
In terms of where the trend is going, products like creatine are so passé -they are the last millennium's muscle bulkers. Where we are now and what the labs can produce is light years away from where we were even 10 years ago. One of the products that causes me huge concern are these 'pre-workout' supplements which you take an hour or two before a weights session. So as not to receive any letters of complaint from manufacturers I won't name them, but these products, I believe, are more dangerous than creatine.
They contain, amongst other things, methylhexanamine and industrial dosages of caffeine. None of these supplements are 100 per cent safe from contamination or cross-contamination and anybody using them could be banned because they are on WADA's proscribed list. I suspect quite a number of 17- to 25-year-olds in amateur rugby and other athletic pursuits in Ireland are regularly using these products without any notion of how dangerous they can be.
In the US it is illegal to sell androgynous anabolic steroids without prescription but it is not illegal to take them and so sourcing and sending are the occupational hazard of the dealers. If there are that many users in the US taking that much then the Feds are only picking up a very small percentage. It is very easy to deal at the gyms and workout stations around the country and that is probably the easiest way to source the product. I am sure the dark net is another forum but it still means that the product will have to be distributed through orthodox channels.
There are, quite unbelievably, a number of steroid sales sites on the internet where you can pick up everything from about 110 registered androgynous anabolic steroids through to 25 variations of testosterone or human growth hormone. Steroid takers will do what they have to do and it's somebody else's problem if they are caught.
What really concerns me, and it is a problem which is either in its infancy or widespread, is the issue of steroid alternatives. The products being sold here are not anabolic steroids per se but what is termed as their 'legal equivalent' and their manufacturers say it is a 'completely legal and safe substitute for steroids without the common side effects'.
So, for instance, if you were a serious athlete and taking an anabolic steroid like Dianabol, you can choose to take the real anabolic steroid and all its consequences or else use a product called D-Bal - the product which claims to do exactly what the real steroid does but is legal and claims to have no side effects.
This is no cottage industry. Remember in Dublin a few years ago you had head shops which sprung up to give people 'legal highs'? It might be a good idea to check out the validity of these legal steroids manufacturers' claims. A lot of American boys are using them. Who's to say there aren't Irish boys doing the same?
There has been much emphasis on concussion injury and CTE as a cause of suicide amongst professional athletes. Maybe it has or maybe it has not been taken into account but most of the athletes who killed themselves were also steroid abusers and the ones who had CTE are just a small percentage in relation to the number of steroid abusers who do eventually kill themselves or die prematurely.
Before the season kicked off the Pro12's CEO, Martin Anayi, raised the possibility of including an American franchise in an interview with Wales Online. I thought at the time that the likelihood of this happening was remote. I did however think that the incorporation of a professional American rugby championship would be very good for the game. If there was no NFL and America's sport was rugby, they would be world champions year after year.
As with all of these ventures at the embryonic stage, getting your structures in place is very important but at all stages money is prime. Douglas Schoninger was the promoter behind the venture and initially they had hoped for a 12-team competition and that competition would be called Pro Rugby USA.
For a variety of reasons they only managed to get five teams in its inaugural year: the Denver Stampede, Ohio Aviators, Sacramento Express, San Francisco Rush and the San Diego Breakers. On October 7, Steve Lewis, Pro Rugby's chief operating officer, left and a few weeks ago the San Francisco Rush were expelled from the league for a variety of reasons. A week before Christmas the whole league collapsed amid recriminations between Schoninger and the American Eagles.
All of the players had their contracts terminated and apart from the players there are quite a number of creditors and employees who have not been paid in a few months. As usual, money, or lack thereof, is the issue here. Sparse attendances are not really of consequence if you have television revenues coming in. Unfortunately, that did not happen and despite Schoninger promising that he would give it three years to succeed, the figures were extrapolated and they did not make financial sense. As usual when an entrepreneurial element meets with an institutional element, there will be wrangling of sorts and prior to the collapse there was bickering and grandstanding from both parties. Nobody knows whether there will be a divine resurrection.
Whither the Pro12? It would seem that the concept of inviting an American franchise to partake was a little premature, or maybe even a little bit of thinking aloud from its CEO. Rather than thinking that the venture is done and dusted would now not be the time to investigate whether a team could be included in the absence of the Americans not being able to put their own league together.
With 100 players and a few former superstars out of contract, surely there would be an opportunity now to ask the question? I feel if the Americans got some form of a franchise up and running it would be a matter of no more than 10 years before they picked up some real talent from some of those un-drafted college superstars.
Remember, once college players leave their universities and don't make it into the NFL or CFL there is no amateur league. A Pro Rugby League would be a serious alternative. Either way, the days of America turning up to World Cups and getting thumped by professional teams will have to stop.
I have been to more than a dozen NFL games in my time. The more I see the closer the gap becomes between enjoying watching rugby union and NFL.
There are a number of themes which are constant in this game, namely the military, race, money and talent. There is always a strong military presence at these games, particularly in the last ten years. I watched the New England Patriots play the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami on New Year's Day. Quite apart from the national anthem being sung with extraordinary fervour - led by a serving Sergeant at Arms in Afghanistan - there was a pitch-size American flag covering the field which was conveyed on to the pitch by a corps of service people. There were regular intermissions to pay homage to soldiers throughout the game and as the final strains of the national anthem were played out, two large military helicopter gun ships flew over the stadium. It is all-pervasive. The mix of sport and military are good for each other in America.
A football game is the perfect place to see how polarised society is in America. It was quite noticeable how jersey sales went along race lines. For the New England patriots, the vast majority of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman jersey's (white players) were worn by the majority of white people and the LeGarrette Blount and Randy Moss (since retired) were worn by the majority of black people - the same applied for Miami.
At the start of this season, Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who played in a Super Bowl a couple of years ago, refused to stand for the national anthem because he believed that the USA oppresses black people and other minorities. This brought forward a storm of disapproval/approval again drawn down on race lines and quite a number of other black athletes chose the same course of action.
I have to say it was a brave decision by Kaepernick and one which would have brought him a whole load of unnecessary opprobrium, but he stuck to his guns all the way until the end of the regular season. The problem here is that money supersedes race or any sense of inferiority and any action taken to stand against that prejudice. The issue comes down to a time and a place for such a stance. The 49ers had a shocker of a season with a two and 14 record - the second worst in the league. Head coach Chip Kelly was sacked on the final day of the season and his general manager got the boot too.
Conversely, the New England Patriots, the best team in the league at 14 and two, had none of these issues. Bill Belichick is the best coach currently working in the NFL and when he finishes he will be looked back on as the greatest of all time. When I looked at the Patriots roster - which was right in front of us - at the game all of their players stood for the anthem, not because they are patriotic but because they were there to do a job. Belichick, as befits a successful coach, has zero tolerance for any matters non-sporting or which distract from a team's performance and that is why he is so successful and why the Patriots are 14 and two. Belichick's attitude would be: 'That's fine boys, do it on your own time.'
Finally, it was a pleasure to watch Tom Brady perform 17 years after I had watched his first game for the Patriots. He is without doubt the greatest quarterback of all time and it was a privilege to see him give a masterclass in passing and field intelligence as the Patriots ensured home field advantage for the play-offs. At 39, Brady is still as nimble mentally and athletically as he was 17 years ago.
His arm is still strong and the speed and accuracy of some of his passes took my breath away. Brady has a net worth running into the hundreds of millions and is set for life financially, yet his desire for the game is undiminished and his skill levels and drive demonstrate that. As they say, 'In it for the outcome not the income.'
If all goes according to plan, it will be a New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl in Houston in February - although Pittsburgh or Green Bay may have something to say about that.
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