WHEN Brian Baldinger broke into the NFL in 1982 as an undrafted offensive lineman with the Dallas Cowboys, steroids were as prevalent in the league as six-shooters in the Wild West.

They weren't a dirty little secret back then. They were a tool of the trade. A significant percentage of the league's offensive and defensive linemen used them.

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"I remember the first day of training camp, going into Player X's dorm room when the vets showed up," says Baldinger, who played 11 NFL seasons for the Cowboys, Eagles and Indianapolis Colts. "A brown bag was dumped out on the bed full of syringes and you name it. And you just kind of grabbed what you needed.

"It wasn't like it is now, with baseball players saying, 'Let's get the playing field even.' Back then, it was understood that X-amount of players, mostly linemen, that's what they did [use steroids]. It wasn't looked at as a competitive advantage."

That perspective would eventually change. As media scrutiny of steroid use in the league increased dramatically in the '80s and more and more "clean" players clamored for performance-enhancing drugs to be outlawed, the league, with the cooperation of the NFL Players Association, took action to eradicate them.

In 1987, the NFL became the first professional sports league to test its players for performance-enhancing drugs. In '89, it began suspending players based on annual testing in training camp. A year later, then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue gave the league's steroid policy real teeth when he implemented year-round random testing, as well as four-game suspensions for first-time offenders.

The percentage of steroid users dropped from 20.3 percent in the 1980s to 12.7 percent since then among retired players responding to a survey that appeared in the March edition of American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.

"The NFL was ahead of the curve," Baldinger says. "It put a big dent in steroid use when they instituted year-round random testing. When you're testing once a year at the beginning of training camp, it's pretty easy for guys who are using to get around that. But when they started doing year-round testing, it made it a lot harder. I think it cleaned it up quite a bit."

Quite a bit, but not completely. Twenty years after the league began suspending players for using performance-enhancing drugs, players still are using them and many still are getting caught. According to league statistics, a total of 43 players have been suspended for violating the league's PED policy over the last 4 years.

Many of the players caught with their hand in the steroid jar have been fairly prominent, including San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, and defensive tackles Marcus Stroud (Buffalo Bills), Shaun Rogers (Cleveland Browns) and Kevin Williams and Pat Williams (Minnesota Vikings).

But there isn't the same public fascination with steroid use in football that there is in baseball. Nobody is writing books about Merriman's and Harrison's "tainted" careers the way they are about Roger Clemens' and Alex Rodriguez'. ESPN isn't asking Hall of Fame voters how three-time Pro Bowler Merriman's 2007 suspension will impact his chances of making it to Canton the way they've done with every baseball player who has been linked to steroids in the last 5 years.

"We get a fair amount of attention each time one of these suspensions occur," Adolpho Birch, the NFL's vice president of law and labor policy, who administers the league's PED program, told the Daily News in a recent interview. "But I think, from our perspective, we have been doing this for a long time. We were suspending players when people didn't care about it. I think if you look at it from a public perception, the one thing they understand is our policy is working and we're enforcing it as written.

"One problem that we don't have, there's not a question as to what was going on 10 years ago. There are not issues of, well, we don't really know what happened [back then]. We do know what happened. We had a policy and every person that has tested positive or been found to use performance-enhancing drugs has been suspended. We have a recognizable record of how we've dealt with the issue."

Baseball can't make the same claim. For years, it dealt with the steroids issue by not dealing with it, until it finally was shamed into doing something about it.

Baseball began survey-testing players for steroids in 2003, but didn't start suspending violators until 2005, 16 years after the NFL. Just 22 players have been suspended in the last 4 years, which is 21 fewer than in the NFL over the same period. But baseball's PED program doesn't include nearly as much random testing as the NFL's, making it considerably easier to beat.

Baseball's agreement with its players union, which fought steroid testing for years, permits a maximum of 375 offseason random tests over 3 years. Each player also is subject to at least one random test during the season, in addition to a mandatory test at the beginning of spring training.

By comparison, the NFL conducts several thousand random tests during the offseason, and can test a player as many as six times. During the season, the league randomly tests 10 players from every team each week. It also tests each player at the start of training camp.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently called the league's PED program "the gold standard in sports."

"I think we measure up as well or better [on steroid testing] than any particular organization that might be out there," Birch says.

That said, Birch isn't naive enough to think that the league is catching every cheater.

"We have to reflect the reality that substances are constantly changing one way or another," he says. "There may be a supplement tomorrow that we don't know about today. I don't think that in any way invalidates the policy leading up to that day. You do everything you can, understanding that some substances can't [be detected]."

One of the most prominent of those undetectable substances is human growth hormone. The World Anti-Doping Agency developed a blood test for HGH in 2004 and has used it at the last three Olympics. But there still are questions about its effectiveness and reliability.

Even if the NFL thought the test was reliable, the NFL Players Association has made it clear it is vehemently opposed to a blood test for PEDs. Before he died last year, union chief Gene Upshaw said his group would gladly accept any validated urine test, but not a blood test.

"No one is interested in a blood test," Upshaw said in February 2008. "We got a lot of big, tough guys, but they don't like to be pricked in the finger to give blood."

Baldinger says the league never will be able to totally eradicate the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

"I have no doubt players still are using them," he says. "People are always going to cheat. They're always going to look for an advantage. That's what it's all about. That's never going to change. I don't care how many tests you have.

"There's somebody out there in Venice Beach or somewhere right now saying, 'OK, you can take this, and here's the masking agent that's not on anybody's list [of banned substances]. Right now, somewhere, in Europe or some South American country, somebody is coming up with some formula that can't be tested. And guys are going to try it.

"You can go around the league and see the guys that are pumped up and the guys that are no longer pumped up. So I don't think there's any question that guys are still using [performance-enhancing drugs]."

Which brings us back to the question of why steroid use in the NFL is largely looked upon with indifference by the public and the media, while it continues to be the story that won't go away in baseball.

Baseball players such as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Clemens and Rodriguez have had their careers irreparably tarnished by the suspicion of steroid use. But in the NFL, the steroid stink is considerably easier to wash off.

Merriman was suspended for the first four games of the 2007 season, yet was named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl that year and finished third in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting. Fans, players and coaches participate in the Pro Bowl voting.

To the NFL's credit, after Merriman made the Pro Bowl, the league added a clause to its PED policy that made players ineligible for the Pro Bowl and league-sponsored awards during any year that they tested positive for steroids.

"Frankly, it was a matter that had not really been contemplated," Birch says. "Once we saw it, we agreed with the union that it shouldn't be allowed. It's an example of how we've worked together [with the union] to do what we feel is in the best interest of the policy and the message we're trying to send."

While steroids seem to be a death sentence for a player's chances of making baseball's Hall of Fame, many of football's 44 Hall selectors are a little more forgiving. It should be noted that baseball's voters are instructed to consider the character of the candidates, and football's voters are not.

The Daily News recently polled 17 of the football Hall of Fame voters, and only two indicated they probably wouldn't vote for a player if he had tested positive for PEDs (see sidebar). One of them was Rick Gosselin, of the Dallas Morning News, who says, "The Hall of Fame is supposed to be for the game's greatest players, not the best cheaters."

Taking the opposite stance is Ed Bouchette, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "The NFL has a system to punish those caught using steroids and the like. I'm in no position to punish them more . . . "

But most fell in line with Dan Pompei, of the Chicago Tribune: "I can't give you a pure yes or no."

The fact that Major League Baseball and its union had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the war on steroids clearly is a big reason why so much more attention is being focused these days on PED use in baseball than football. But there also are other reasons, not the least of which is baseball's obsession with statistics.

Ask 10 sports fans to tell you Emmitt Smith's NFL-record career rushing total and two might get within a thousand yards (it's 18,355). Ask those same 10 people for Babe Ruth's and Hank Aaron's career home-run totals, and most of them will get both right on the money (714 for Ruth, 755 for Aaron).

The cause-and-effect of steroid use is much easier to see in baseball than in football. When a guy like Brady Anderson bulks up and goes from 16 home runs in 1995 to 50 in 1996, it sets off alarm bells. When a 310-pound NFL guard adds 30 pounds of muscle, it's like Dolly Parton getting breast-enhancement surgery.

"With linemen, it's a lot harder to measure the impact [of steroid use]," Baldinger says. "I mean, how do you tell? All these guys are 340 pounds to begin with. In baseball, you can see the difference. You can see Barry Bonds' [enlarged] head. You can see Mark McGwire go from this beanpole to this hulking, 260-pound home run hitter. Football players are wearing helmets and pads. We seldom get to see them with just their shirts on, like baseball players."

The large majority of NFL players who have tested positive for steroids have been offensive or defensive linemen or linebackers. When big guys get bigger, nobody seems to care.

"How many running backs, quarterbacks or receivers have been suspended for steroids?" says former Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson. "Not many. Maybe if more of those positions, which involve statistics, had guys test positive, there would be a bigger furor. If Peyton Manning tested positive, I think that might make some headlines. But [with] an offensive or defensive lineman, it's a 1-day story."

Baldinger notes that in baseball, many of the players being implicated "are their biggest stars, going back to McGwire and Sosa, and now Manny, Bonds and Clemens. Hall of Famers. If we were talking about LaDainian Tomlinson, if we were talking about Peyton Manning, if we were talking about that caliber of player [using steroids] in the NFL, I think there would be a lot more attention paid to it.

"Merriman is a big name. But he plays in San Diego and it only happened once, and [people's attitude is] he's an animal, but he's supposed to be animal. So [they aren't sure], how much did the steroids really help him?" *