On Wednesday, the NBA announced that it had suspended Orlando Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu 20 games after testing positive for steroids. It's a notable story if only because issues regarding performance-enhancing drugs typically don't enter the NBA's orbit. For the most part, that's the province of other major sports and leagues. However, this announcement brings up important questions about the prevalence of PEDs in basketball.
Let's start with the report itself. Not surprisingly, Turkoglu denies that he took steroids on purpose. From Kyle Hightower for the Associated Press:
The NBA said Turkoglu tested positive for methenolone, an anabolic steroid. He will begin serving the suspension Wednesday night in Orlando's game against the Atlanta Hawks.
Turkoglu said in a statement released by the team that he took medication from a trainer in Turkey this past summer to help him recover from a shoulder injury. He said he ''didn't know that this was a banned substance and didn't check before taking it.''
''I take full responsibility for anything that goes into my body,'' the 33-year-old from Turkey said in his statement. ''This was a complete error in judgment on my part and I apologize to the Orlando Magic organization, the league, my teammates, and the Magic fans. I know I have let down a lot of people and I am truly sorry for my mistake.''
In pure basketballular terms, this is not a huge loss for the Magic. Turkoglu has been quite awful this season, scoring 2.9 ppg in 17.2 minutes per game. On top of that, he's making $11.8 million and has one year left on his contract, and the Magic don't have to pay his salary while he serves his suspension.
In broader terms, it's not a good look for the NBA. In the past few years, the league has had only two major stories regarding steroids use — the suspensions of Rashard Lewis in 2009 and of O.J. Mayo in 2011. Turkoglu brings a third, as well as added intrigue.
It's unclear how much steroids would help a basketball player, especially in a league where skill and agility in traffic matter more than raw speed and brute strength. Yet there's no question that these drugs make it easier to add strength and hasten recovery from injury. Turkoglu missed the last 10 games of the 2011-12 season with a broken bone above the eye and missed the first 28 games of this season to a broken bone in his hand. Turkoglu says that he took the drug by accident, but the circumstances of these past few months — along with the fact that athletes regularly claim they took these drugs unknowingly, to the point where it's rarely a believable excuse — suggest that Turkoglu may have taken steroids in order to expedite the healing process.
This is all speculation, of course, and we can't really know what Turkoglu did or why he did it until more information comes out. Then again, the curious thing about the NBA's relation to these drugs is that we hear relatively little about its impact in a sports landscape where PED use appears rampant. While it's a virtue to assume the innocence of these players until they're proven guilty, it's also extremely difficult to think no one takes PEDs when athletes in virtually every other sport seem to make a habit of it.
Turkoglu's positive test doesn't prove anything about a steroids epidemic in the NBA, but it does show that some players travel in circles not entirely hostile to banned drugs. Until more details come to light, public opinion will trend more towards speculating over the degree to which PEDs affect NBA competition. Ultimately, the proof will have to come from the NBA's drug tests, including potentially forthcoming tests for human growth hormone.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to prove innocence in circumstances defined by speculation. The problem for the NBA isn't necessarily a problem — again, we don't know if the league has one — but the fact that revelations around the sports world have made it impossible to believe that these tests catch every user. Every positive test is only confirmation that the problem might run deeper than we imagine. Until the culture allows for open use (unlikely, and probably not desired), an expansive NBA-focused PED ring gets exposed, or players get slower and smaller, minds will continue to wander.