How NFL Can Improve Its Drug Testing Policy

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IMay 9, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 03:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addresses the media during a news conference ahead of Superbowl XLVI on February 3, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Last August, the NFL announced that it would revamp and improve its drug testing policy. According to a New York Times report, every player in every season would be tested for human growth hormone at least once a year.

That provision—with the already-in-place testing for the more “commonplace” performance enhancing drugs (i.e. anabolic steroids)—seemed to make the NFL the front-runner in terms of team-sports testing. Ahead of the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and even international sports.

But the policy is still far from perfect.

As everyone says, the cheaters will always be out in front of any league testing policy. Unscrupulous doctors and chemists, well aware of the money that can be made by supplying million-dollar athletes with enhancements, constantly search for a niche market.

So in some respects, the NFL—like MLB, the NBA, the NHL, etc.—will perpetually be playing catch-up and closing the barn door after the horses have bolted.

Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better system out there. And improvements don’t necessarily have to involve increasing punishments and/or banishments.

As it stands, the league has a pretty solid policy for punishing players who are suspended. Take the case of Denver Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams and Ravens defensive tackle Ryan McBean.

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Assuming they were fairly punished (both insist their failed urine tests are false), the six-game suspensions they’ve been given seem appropriate. As first-time offenders, they will miss a significant portion of the season, but not the entire season, or even half of the year.

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 11:  Quarterback Caleb Hanie #12 of the Chicago Bears is tackled by linebacker D.J. Williams #55 of the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 11, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. The Brocnos defeated the Bears 13
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But one area where the policy needs to be improved is this vague, nebulous world of supplements, over-the-counter and/or prescription medication.

First the prescription and/or over-the-counter meds.

Broncos tight end Virgil Green was suspended for four games this upcoming season because he was taking ADHD medication. He didn’t tell the league about the medicine before the test and, as a result, failed his urine test. Presumably something in that medication overlapped with one of the many banned substances.

Green had an obligation to check with the league before taking the medication, but the league itself needs to do a better job of informing the players and the teams that every thing they put into their bodies could lead to a positive test.

Someone in the league and officials within each team should scare their players to the point that even the delivered pizza or the fast food they eat at the drive-thru might very well lead to a positive test.

Along those same lines, the players union and the NFL need to come to some resolution about supplements. How often do we see that a player tested positive for a banned substance, and the reason wasn’t necessarily something egregious like steroids or HGH, but rather some element of a supplement that triggered a positive result?

That’s what allegedly happened with the Vikings' Kevin and Pat Williams. They took a supplement that included a banned diuretic called bumetanide, and it led to their suspension of two games (reduced from four). And those two are not the only NFL players to claim ignorance about the ingredients in the supplements they take.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 20: Kevin Williams #93 of the Minnesota Vikings runs onto the field before the game against the Oakland Raiders on November 20, 2011 at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Image
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

To be honest, the best way to avoid this type of confusion and conflict (for both sides) is to eliminate and essentially ban ALL supplements. That way, there’s no ambiguity and no extensive, confusing laundry list of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, what’s certified and what’s not certified.

There’s too much money to be made via supplements, however, and because they are not illegal drugs, the NFL will never choose to ban supplements altogether. That type of fight is too much of a headache for the league.

But I do think the NFL can find an alternative: form partnerships with supplement companies and regulate what brands and types are allowed. Have players order their supplements through the league, rather than (possibly) shady trainers and pharmacies and doctors.

That way, there is no confusion (or excuse).

Every player’s usage will be cataloged and accounted for, and when a player's blood and urine samples are analyzed, the league will readily have available the components that should show up in the analysis.

If a player tests positive, there will be no drama and confusion, because that positive test had to be the result of the player buying and using something that was not provided by the NFL and its partners. 

The other, more obvious aspect of the NFL’s drug testing policy doesn’t involve prescription meds or supplements. Those, of course, are illegal and “recreational” drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc.

On this front, I think the NFL is heading in the right direction. Annually, between May 1 and August 1 players are randomly tested for these recreational drugs. But would it really be asking too much and so difficult to double that figure to twice a year and (at least once) test the players during the season?

It’s great that they are at least tying to test the players. The league is conscious about having its players appear—I won’t say like “role models”—but something close to it.

But would it be more prudent that they appear as law-abiding, upstanding citizens during the season rather than before of after it? Double the policy to include at least one test between August 1 and February 1.

Not only is it the right way to help maintain integrity for the league’s players and to adhere to the “personal conduct policy” that Roger Goodell has been harping on the past few years, but it would be much easier to implement than the May 1 through August 1 testing program.

During those months, players are scattered all around the world—it's the offseason. But in-season, teams should have no problem locating their players. So grabbing them to pee in a cup in between a special-teams meeting, weightlifting or a game-planning meeting shouldn’t be very difficult.

Obviously, these improvements would be subject to approval by both the league and the players union, as well as the obligatory hundreds of lawyers.

Furthermore, they probably wouldn’t even be able to take effect until the next collective bargaining agreement is hammered out, hopefully well before the current one expires in 2021.

But all we hear about lately with regard to the NFL's on- and off-field issues is player safety, whether it's Bountygate, concussions or the quality of life players have after leaving the game. So, when it comes to players literally putting poisons into their bodies, the league should be as vigilant and forward-thinking as possible.

Besides, if keeping the NFL's finances and image healthy and strong for the long term is the league's primary goal, it should be just as adamant about keeping the players healthy and strong for the long term as well.