A Deeper Look at the Issues Behind the Wes Welker Suspension and NFL PED Policy

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A Deeper Look at the Issues Behind the Wes Welker Suspension and NFL PED Policy
JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

If Wes Welker doesn't know what he took, the NFL is giving him time to figure it out.

The Denver Broncos wide receiver was suspended on Wednesday following news that he tested positive for amphetamines, as first reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter. Almost immediately after Schefter's tweet, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported via an anonymous source that the amphetamine trace stemmed from MDMA use at the Kentucky Derby earlier this year. 

In an email to Mike Klis of The Denver Post, Welker immediately denied Pro Football Talk's report and claimed he was "as shocked as everyone" by the four-game suspension, emphasis Welker's:

I'm as shocked as everyone at today's news. I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I would NEVER knowingly take a substance to gain a competitive advantage in any way. Anyone who has ever played a down with me, lifted a weight with me, even eaten a meal with me, knows that I focus purely on what I put in my body and on the hard work I put in year round to perform at the highest levels year-in and year-out.

Welker said later in the piece: "I wouldn't have any idea where to get a Molly or what a Molly is. That's a joke. I don't do marijuana, I don't do drugs. I don't do any drugs."

Klis also added his own reporting that, according to a source, the amphetamine that triggered the positive test was Adderall, a common ADHD treatment that is regularly abused by students seeking an edge and also, allegedly, by more and more NFL players as of late.

Notably, the Seattle Seahawks have had multiple players deal with this substance, and head coach Pete Carroll addressed it at the Super Bowl last year. 

Just last week I wrote about the NFL's drug program, and I agree with Welker's assertion that changes need to be made to existing policy—especially in regards to the drugs the NFL pressures players to take. Around Welker's suspension, however, there are a number of other issues at play.

 

Understanding the Differences Between MDMA and Amphetamines

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick

Just call it "The Molly Defense"

As noted in Florio's tweet, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick was similarly suspended for four games earlier this year due to testing positive for an amphetamine, but Scandrick appealed the decision—eventually losing the appeal—on the basis of the claim that he had actually taken MDMA and that the street drug must have been cut with the performance-enhancing one.

MDMA is more commonly known under the street names of "Molly" or "Ecstasy." Though some may recognize nuanced differences between the three terms above, they are used interchangeably by many experts with the only real difference being that Molly has become a much broader term because of the many adulterants and substitutes often sold under misleading names.

From CNN:

"The DEA says only 13% of the Molly seized in New York state the last four years actually contained any MDMA, and even then it often was mixed with other drugs. The drugs frequently found in Molly are Methylone, MDPV, 4-MEC, 4-MMC, Pentedrone and MePP."

In reality, there isn't a real tangible benefit to claiming the amphetamine use was derived from it being cut into MDMA. The four-game suspension is still happening because the amphetamines were in the player's system. The only real positive might come from being seen as partaking in a reasonably accessible street drug for recreational purposes rather than being labeled a cheater. 

To grapple with this topic, I contacted Dr. John Halpern, who is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard and also works as the Director of the Laboratory for Integrative Psychiatry of McLean Hospital, which Dr. Halpern noted had worked with the NFL on the formation of its existing drug policies. Dr. Halpern is considered a leading expert on MDMA. 

There is some confusion between MDMA and amphetamines because the second "M" in MDMA stands for methylamphetamine, though that's a scientific term based on the structure of the drug and not the actual purpose or effects. 

From Dr. Halpern:

"The only connection between MDMA and amphetamines is structure. MDMA is known for increasing [one's] sense of empathy, touch, etc. Trying to be athletic is almost impossible.

"With amphetamines, a person’s ego or “can do-ism” can increase. It can increase exertion, one believes he can achieve more and do more. It can make a person aggressive and he will try things that are impossible or foolish—these are the things an NFL player wants, and it's rightfully classified as a performance enhancer." 

Yet, Dr. Halpern also noted that there is at least a little credence to "The Molly Defense" since the drug is so often adulterated and amphetamines can help cause somewhat similar highs for a much cheaper price—read: higher profit margin for the dealer. 

In fact, Halpern said, "One out of five [pills] contains no MDMA at all."

This is similar to some of the data at EcstasyData.org (a project co-sponsored by DanceSafe), which tests pills under the auspices of creating a safer environment for those who choose to indulge. 

By its data, over 33 percent of pills believed by users to contain MDMA actually contained none of the substance they believed they were purchasing. On top of that, another 12.8 percent contained MDMA plus an adulterant. Of those tested with an adulterant, 21.3 percent contained some sort of stimulant that could be anything from caffeine to amphetamines or methamphetamines. 

Where the excuse rings hollow, of course, is in the fact that players shouldn't be putting any of these into their bodies—either in terms of legality or by NFL policy. As Halpern said sarcastically, "Oh, you mean a drug dealer lied to you?"

 

A Tale of Two Drug Policies

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
NFL's Roger Goodell and NFLPA's De Smith

Asked about the two substances, and some of the ongoing confusion about who is getting suspended for what, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello sent along this statement about the NFL's dual drug policies:

One [policy] addresses substance abuse as a medical issue with treatment initially followed by progressive discipline after multiple violations; the other addresses substances used to gain a competitive advantage on the field, thus zero tolerance. Both are co-administered by the players’ union.

MDMA is placed under the "Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse." Here, the NFL—at least ostensibly—treats alcohol and recreational drug use as a health issue. Though some, including me, think the program is far more punitive than it need be, at least the intent is to help the player. 

Both Welker and Scandrick were suspended four games and thus clearly placed into the program administered by the "Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances," (found here) where "greenies," "Adderall" and "speed" are listed as possible specifics/street names for amphetamines. 

That second policy is where the zero-tolerance policy comes in and where the NFL simply does not care how or why something got into a player's system. Scandrick's agent, Ronald Slavin, provided the following statement to Tim McMahon who covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas:

I do not excuse Orlando having tested positive for a banned stimulant. The current rules are what they are, and a player is responsible for what is in his body. However, I would like it known that it is my understanding that if the current proposed agreement related to HGH testing would have already been instituted, a very significant percentage of the players receiving 'PED' suspensions since the new CBA took effect would not have been suspended. Instead, these players, under the proposed new policy, would have been subjected to the Substance Abuse Policy and Program.

I followed up with Slavin, who emphasized that he is not in the room as the NFL and NFLPA are discussing HGH policy, but that the possible change in policy is "what [he] was told." However, a source with knowledge of the negotiations confirmed to Bleacher Report that Slavin's belief is accurate.

What's holding up that HGH policy? I touched on many of the issues in a column last year. Sadly, many of the exact same issues are holding up the agreement of a policy—especially the concept of neutral arbitration, which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has always been reluctant to give up. 

Slavin continued by saying the amphetamines these players are testing positive for in the offseason are "fast-acting drugs" that are in the players' systems for such a short time that it's "doing nothing for these guys" in terms of providing any performance-enhancing effect. 

"Street drugs—obviously these guys shouldn’t be doing them at all. That being said: street drugs are cut. They think they’re getting MDMA and it’s not pure. They’re taking a pill in a social setting and then they’re failing a PED test. Instead of giving [these players] the help they might need, [the NFL is] shunning them." 

 

Both Welker and the League Need to Be More Careful

This brings us back to Welker, who has shunned "The Molly Defense" and is doubling down on what Dr. Halpern called the "Roger Clemens Defense"—the idea that an athlete was slipped a drug and had no idea how it got into his body. 

Calls to reach Welker through his agent, David Dunn, were not returned at the time of publishing.

According to the testing standards, Welker would be beating long odds to have been slipped a substance of abuse and then fail a drug test for amphetamines. The generally accepted time for amphetamines to be detected in urine is one to three days, according to a study by Yale Universitywith a maximum of nine days.

That creates a certain amount of randomness not only in this whole story, but also in the drug policy as a whole. For NFL athletes who are not currently in the drug program, it's almost impossible not to skirt around the outsides of the policy and remain unnoticed, even with habitual recreational drug use. 

For PEDs, the testing can be a little more stringent, as it includes the same pre-employment testing but adds an annual test (at training camp) and randomized testing in preseason, during the regular season and postseason and then random testing throughout the offseason. 

Dr. Halpern reiterated that there are two separate urine tests for amphetamines and MDMA, saying that any overlap is because of adulterants and not because of a false positive. 

"Urine tests for amphetamines and MDMA are different. Someone who tests positive for amphetamines will not test positive for MDMA. Someone who tests positive for MDMA might test positive for amphetamines because illicit drugs are usually adulterated with something."

Take note that the NFL cannot test for both policies just because it has a player sample available—according to the NFLPA, in a statement to Bleacher Report:

"Testing is able to distinguish between different chemical compounds. The consequences of a positive test (regardless of the circumstances) is determined by the policy that governs that specific test. A player who is administered a test under the Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances (PED test for short) is subject to the discipline outlined under that policy."

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The other big point here is the privacy concerns and obligations both policies lay out. It is troubling that—time and again—news of what players are taking is leaked to the media. Once it's out there, it becomes news, but before it is common knowledge, someone is playing fast and loose with the medical history of players like Welker, Scandrick and others. 

NFLPA spokesman George Atallah had the following to say on the matter:

We have a major concern when confidential player information is leaked and often times we do not know where it is coming from. The challenge from us is to piece together the sources who may have known sensitive information and track it that way.

Often times, we need full cooperation from the League and others to trace the most egregious of leaks. Discovering the sources is not the easiest thing to do, but we pursue all leaks as vigilantly as we can.

The only person who can break confidentiality is the player himself. This doesn't excuse the player, but it's certainly something the league should be looking into with a little more frequency and ferocity. 

Then again, as stated earlier by both Slavin and Dr. Halpern, the athlete is also the only person who can be responsible for what goes into his body. In Welker's statement to The Denver Post, he claimed to take that responsibility very seriously. Still, the presence of what is alleged to be amphetamines in his body is proof that he hasn't been careful enough. 

Amphetamine use is especially dangerous in Welker's case, as the use of stimulants is notable for athletes dealing with concussion symptoms. Welker recently received his third concussion in the last 10 times he's suited up and has been using a helmet that is claimed by its manufacturers to help reduce the risk of concussions. 

In 2007, former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson revealed to Alan Schwarz of The New York Times that he had become an amphetamine addict. The stimulant quality of the drugs lessens the severity of post-concussion syndrome, though it can place even more stress on the brain. 

The truth is, while every NFL player should be extremely careful with what goes into his body, Welker's history of brain trauma makes it a near life-and-death matter. 

 

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained by the author.

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