Brian Cushing may go down in history as the only two-time winner of the Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. In January, the AP's panel of voters awarded the honor to Cushing in a landslide, giving him 39 of the possible 50 votes. Last week, we learned that Cushing had tested positive at the beginning of his rookie season for hCG, a fertility drug that is on the list of banned substances in the NFL Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances (the "NFL Policy"). Cushing challenged the positive test through the NFL's internal appeal system, but the appeal was denied earlier this month and Cushing will serve his mandatory 4-game suspension at the beginning of next season. In light of the news of Cushing's violation, the AP decided to conduct a revote for the award. Cushing won the award again, this time with a total of 18 votes (the "Cushing 18").
The revote has provoked a tremendous amount of outrage--outrage over the AP's decision to have a revote, the results of the revote, Cushing's defiant denials, the NFL's drug policy, and the decision to cast an 11-year old as the new Karate Kid (that last one may be unrelated). Some of the outrage may be appropriate, and I agree that the Cushing 18 sent the wrong message by re-voting for Cushing, but I'm not here to pile on the criticism of Cushing or the 18 members of the media who re-voted for him. Instead, I want to defend the AP and the NFL. I'll start with the AP here and then move on to the NFL later in the week.
The AP's decision to revote has been attacked as (among other things) an inappropriate attempt to rewrite history and a threat to the finality of awards. Some members of the Cushing 18 were so opposed to the revote decision that they re-voted for Cushing as a protest against the decision to revote. One voter--Ed Bouchette--actually changed his vote to Cushing from Jairus Byrd in protest. I don't quite understand the anger and the retaliatory votes that the revote triggered.
Granted, in an ideal world, the AP would have had a rule calling for a revote in these circumstances, but these were unusual, unprecedented circumstances. Never before had a player tested positive at the beginning of one season, only to have the positive result come out after the season (and voting for player awards) had ended. The revote, though, was not a threat to the sanctity of the AP honors or a challenge to the finality of awards. It was just an attempt by the AP to give the Defensive Rookie of the Year award to the "right" player in light of newly discovered information that was directly relevant to Cushing's performance during his rookie year. If the voters believed that Cushing deserved the award despite his violation, so be it. Voters made that decision in 2002 when they voted Julius Peppers the Defensive Rookie of the Year after he violated the NFL's steroid policy and served a 4-game suspension. A similar decision was made in 2006 when Shawne Merriman was voted to the Pro Bowl after he violated the policy and served his 4-game suspension.
Of course, I understand the opposition to honoring a player with an award during a season in which he used a banned substance. But, why the opposition to allowing a revote to strip a player of an award when we discover--well after the season has ended--that the player achieved the award while using a banned substance? Is this really any different than the International Olympic Committee ("IOC") stripping an athlete of a medal when it discovers--well after the games have ended--that the athlete was doping during the competition? Or the NCAA taking away wins or national championships from a team when it discovers--well after the season has ended--that one of the players on the team was ineligible?
The IOC actually stores the doping samples it collects from athletes for 8 years so that they can be re-tested as new testing methods become available. Any positive test can be applied retroactively and used to strip athletes of medals and results. In 2009, the IOC stripped an athlete of a gold medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics based on the results of a new type of drug test that did not exist in 2008. More new testing procedures will be developed, and more old medals will be stripped, as far back as the 2006 Olympics. I don't hear much of an outcry when the IOC decides to strip Olympic athletes of their medals based on a retroactive test, and I didn't hear any outcry when Marion Jones lost her medals after she admitted to using banned substances.
So, why the outrage here? It can't be because the AP left Cushing on the revote ballot. After all, if the voters felt that Peppers was deserving in 2002, why not allow them to decide if Cushing was deserving in 2009? It also can't be because the AP didn't automatically elevate the second place finisher to first, like they do in the Olympics when the gold medal finisher is disqualified. After all, in an Olympic event, we essentially know that the silver medalist would have won the race if the gold medalist had not run. We don't know that the AP voters would have voted for the second place finisher if Cushing had not been eligible. So, if the AP winner becomes ineligible, how do we figure out the new winner? Well, a revote seems like a sensible solution to me.
Will this precedent open the door to re-votes in the future? Perhaps, but why is that a bad thing? If the concern is that we'll never have any finality, then we can institute a statute of limitations--all awards are final unless challenged within 3 years. But, don't we want the ability to strip athletes of awards and achievements if we later learn that they earned them while using performance-enhancing (or related) substances? The AP's process may not have been perfect, but we can protest an imperfect process in ways that don't honor those who use banned substances.