IIn many ways, Julian Edelman, this year's Super Bowl MVP, is the perfect example of what it means to be a New England Patriot. The versatile receiver does not have regular season statistics that impress most people, but he saves his best performances in the playoffs, where he is second only to Jerry Rice at the postseason receptions. He is a true overachiever who went on to become a local hero throughout New England. In addition, in the true fashion of the Patriots, he was a victim of NFL rules, although he certainly did not receive the same amount of media analysis for his infraction as Tom Brady did during the Deflategate saga.
Before we get into that, let's focus on the positives. At Sunday's Super Bowl, Edelman picked up 141 receiving yards and eight first downs. Brady seemed to aim at him whenever a car stammered and he picked up 10 of the 12 passes thrown in his way. He was unquestionably the MVP of the game, unless you want to tell the bettor Ryan Allen, and no one wants to do that. It was an incredible performance, especially coming from a player who lost last season with a ripped ACL.
Except, he may have had some help coming back from that injury. Edelman was suspended in the first four games this season after a drug policy violation to improve the NFL's performance. Although we do not know specifically what he tested positive for – the exact results are not disclosed – Edelman did not protest against the suspension. On Instagram, he claimed ignorance by saying, "I'm sorry – I do not know what happened. I did a lot of testing, obviously, throughout my career, and nothing like that happened."
Following Edelman's MVP, there has been some discussion as to how appropriate it was for him to receive the prize in view of the suspension, but it is remarkable how the incident was apparently forgotten, particularly since there were two weeks of uninterrupted coverage of the game.
In fact, Edelman's story echoes from other celebrated Super Bowl champions. It was presented as a reassuring story when Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis ended his career with a Super Bowl victory in 2013, despite convincing reports that he also used performance-enhancing substances to come back from a serious injury. Peyton Manning retired as one of the greatest players in the NFL, and remains a ubiquitous figure in the media, his reputation untouched by reports that he used HGH (it should be noted that, unlike Edelman, Lewis and Manning have never failed in tests for PEDs).
It may just be that in the NFL, drug use to improve performance is not a big deal. In an article for the USA Today newspaper about the suspension of Edelman's PED, Nancy Armor compares Edelman's punishment of four games with those of Major League Baseball, noting that MLB could have suspended a player who failed the drug test during post season. She concludes that it's different in the NFL: "We do not even catch a glimpse of NFL players who use drugs. Rarely does a month pass without a player making a four-game suspension for the PEDs, but the advertisement attracts as much attention as endless shuffling of the practice team. "
She points out that it's partly because we do not see NFL players as human beings, but as superhuman gladiators. Bottom line, on some level, we assume that drug use to improve performance is rampant in the NFL and we accept it. The controversies that occur tend to be when NFL athletes prove to be too human. Former Edelman teammate Josh Gordon has received far more negative attention for being caught using recreational drugs than Edelman for using a substance that (according to the NFL) could give him an edge in real games. Then, of course, there is the saga of Colin Kaepernick, who was basically banned by the league for the "crime" of protesting against police brutality. Who knows what he was thinking when he received the news of Edelman's Super Bowl honors.
Anyway, none of this should be on Edelman. He could only fulfill the punishment he received – and returned to play admirably on the biggest stage of the game. He deserved the prize and any attempt to withdraw it retroactively or put an asterisk next to it would not be right or fair. This, however, may be an opportunity for the league – and for us – to stop and think about how we judge the players' actions.