Mathis' story seems plausible. His reputation as a straight-shooter, a family man and a locker-room leader help earn him the benefit of the doubt. He issued a statement to his fans via Twitter laying out what happened, apologizing for not getting more clarification from the NFL before using the drug and expressing his regret that he'll miss four games.
If anyone in pro sports has built up a large enough supply of evidence of honesty and transparency to earn our trust, it's Mathis.
And yet we've been burned so many times, from Mark McGwire to Marion Jones to Ryan Braun to Lance Armstrong to all sorts of self-proclaimed innocent athletes at various points along that timeline.
It feels like every time we believe “our” player is innocent, we end up regretting it. We end up hearing, via press release or Oprah or otherwise, that the performance-enhancing drug was in fact used for performance enhancing. Sorry.
Mathis' explanation makes sense at face value.
“Like many families, my wife and I faced fertility challenges, and I sought medical assistance,” Mathis said in a statement he issued via Twitter. “I specifically asked the doctor if the medication he prescribed for me would present a problem for NFL drug testing, and unfortunately he incorrectly told me that it would not. I made the mistake of not calling the NFL or NFLPA to double check before I took the medication at the end of last season.”
So, at the very least, Mathis suspected he could be using something that could lead to a positive test. His decision to rely on the doctor's word without double-checking with the NFL or NFL Players Association was a bad call at best, a curious omission at worst. Mathis' agent told reporters that Mathis met face-to-face with NFL officials, including commissioner Roger Goodell, to explain his situation.
"The drug for which Mr. Mathis tested positive is not approved by the FDA for fertility in males and is a performance-enhancing drug that has been prohibited for years," the NFL said in a released statement.
Perhaps the stress of the situation, along with the relief that he and his wife had found a medical solution to a very personal problem led Mathis to take the doctor's word that there would be no issues, and leave it at that. Mathis said his wife became pregnant after the treatment. Only Mathis knows why he didn't take the extra step to check with the NFL. It could be an innocent moment of neglect.
After all, Mathis didn't issue any denials about testing positive. He didn't claim the test was false or flawed or any other version of denying the validity of the positive test. He explained his situation, laid out the details and asked Colts fans to understand why the positive test happened.
If not for the the false claims of Armstrong, Rafael Palmeiro and so on, it would be simpler to accept Mathis' explanation without reservation. Now we have to consciously resist the urge to look back at Mathis' 19.5 sacks last season and wonder if they were artificially inflated.
It's unfair to be skeptical about Mathis' story because of the stream of previous pro athletes who were exposed as cheaters and liars. He is not those other athletes. On the other hand, when so many pro athletes have had their version of “innocence” exposed as fantasy, it's impossible to resist speculation.
Mathis said Goodell declined to reduce or dismiss the four-game suspension. If you believe Mathis' explanation, Goodell comes off as about as hard-hearted as it gets. More likely, Goodell decided facts are facts, Mathis tested positive and the punishment is spelled out. Sometimes it's as simple as that.
I'll believe Mathis' explanation. But years of pro athletes' positive tests and their phony stories make believing more difficult than it once would have been.