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Dan Shaughnessy

Harrison matter hits home and, like safety, hits hard

It is a beautiful Labor Day weekend in New England and the games are going on all around us and the prospects for autumn (and beyond) seem infinite . . . and then we find out that one of the local favorites is a cheater.

Unless you are on the receiving end of one of his bone-rattling hits, it's just about impossible to dislike Rodney Harrison. He's a teammate's teammate, a stand-up guy, and a locker room leader. He takes no prisoners on the field and makes no excuses off it. He's good to the fans, gives great sound bites, and has been one of the shining symbols of the Patriots' magnificent championship era. Remember when he made a shoulder tackle with a broken right arm in Super Bowl XXXVIII? Remember the confetti falling around him when his arm was in a sling?

But we found out Friday night that Harrison has been going about his business (for the last couple of years at least) with some illegal help. He was suspended by the National Football League for four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, reportedly for use of human growth hormone.

The Patriot public relations machine, an estimable force that includes a substantial number of people who speak into microphones and send words into cyberspace, will be in overdrive working Harrison's defense over the next month.

Let's face it: No one who roots for the Patriots wants to acknowledge any wrongdoing by Harrison because everybody loves the guy - with good reason. And so there will be carpet-bombing commentary about how Harrison did not actually take steroids and how everybody else is probably doing the same things. We'll be told Harrison used banned substances only to "get back on the field," that this is a one-time thing, and that he did it only to help him recover from injuries. It was not about gaining competitive advantage - Rodney told us that himself.

Unfortunately, that's a smokescreen. "Getting back on the field" is, by any definition, a competitive advantage. More than that, HGH also makes you bigger and stronger. It increases muscle mass. And it's against the rules.

It's easy to understand why Harrison would take the stuff. He's a 34-year-old safety in a league of 24-year-old defensive backs and he's suffered a couple of devastating injuries the past two seasons. But try for a moment to imagine the reaction around here if it was Alex Rodriguez who got caught. For that matter, how does this make Harrison different from Barry Bonds, the man we love to scorn?

Once again, it's about laundry. In the eyes of Patriots fans, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman was a cheating scumbag when he tested positive for steroids last year. There was outrage that Merriman was named to the Pro Bowl in a year in which he served a four-game suspension. Rafael Palmeiro? A lying phony who got caught and invalidated his 500 homers.

Now Harrison has been caught red-handed, and fans will want to believe he is different. Better. Just as they want to believe that the Patriots are different - not like all those other NFL teams with rosters of rogues. In fact, the Patriots are just like everybody else, only better on Sundays. They have a roster of human beings, and humans make mistakes.

Harrison certainly gets points for taking responsibility and being contrite.

"I understand that I'm a role model to high school, to college, to young kids," he said in a conference call Friday night. "I don't condone my decision, my behavior. I'm very, very embarrassed by it. I'm disappointed in myself. I sent the wrong message with my actions. This is something that Rodney Harrison did."

Harrison did not answer questions, and a few of his remarks were misleading. There was the aforementioned "not for competitive edge" fib. He also emphasized that he never used steroids. This doesn't make him any less guilty, just smarter. Unlike steroid testing, there is no reliable testing for HGH. Harrison got caught only because his supplier was being investigated by government agencies. Absent reliable testing, that's how HGH and steroid users are getting caught these days.

Harrison spoke with the Globe's Jackie MacMullan in late July and talked about how he had worried that he might never regain his skills. He said he suddenly noticed significant improvement last spring. He said he could jump higher and move faster. Quarterback Tom Brady told him, "You've got your speed back."

Now we know how that happened.

If Harrison hadn't been caught, there would have been no remorseful conference call and no apology. We never would have known about any banned substances and most of us would have enjoyed the blissful ignorance. But he did get caught, and he's forever tainted, and the myth of the perfect Patriot world has been punctured again.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist.

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