The NFL's Drug Problem: How the League's Drug Policy Is Broken

Paul Thelen@@ThePaulLenContributor IIMay 1, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 04:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during the Super Bowl XLVII Team Winning Coach and MVP Press Conference at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on February 4, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The NFL has a serious drug problem. One that is entirely derivative of their negligence to police a lawless, self-created environment of cheating.  

On July 25, 2011, to the jubilation of fans across the globe, the NFL and the NFLPA ended their five-month dispute and emerged with a new collective bargaining agreement.

The 301-page document became the league’s new constitution. It settled myriad financial disputes and initiated, or at least appeared to initiate, a progression in player safety.

The headlines from the long-winded agreement were the reduced rookie pay scale, significant regulations placed on practices including the restriction of two-a-day practices and the NFLPA's 47 percent share of the total revenue.

The on-the-field softening was not to the detriment of the NFL’s popularity, so fans and media alike swallowed the insufferable amounts of concussion awareness and the increased enforcement on aggressive tackles, dismissing both as necessary casualties for the greater good of the sport.

By deflecting the public’s attention towards the player-safety improvements of the new CBA, the NFL has unscrupulously, albeit successfully, thrown a veil over their infectious drug problem.

Technically, the NFL and NFLPA condemned the use of performance enhancing drugs in the CBA. Page 173, Article 39, section 7 states:

General Policy.

" (a) The parties agree that substance abuse and the use of anabolic steroids are unacceptable within the NFL, and that it is the responsibility of the parties to deter and detect substance abuse and steroid use and to offer programs of intervention, rehabilitation, and support to players who have substance abuse problems."

" (b) Policies. The parties confirm that the Program on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances will include both annual blood testing and random blood testing for human growth hormone, with discipline for positive tests at the same level as for stero­ids. Over the next several weeks, the parties will discuss and develop the specific arrangements relating to the safe and secure collection of samples, transportation and testing of samples, the scope of review of the medical science, and the arbitrator review policy, with the goal of beginning testing by the first week of the 2011 regular season."

Keep in mind, the CBA was ratified on August 4, 2011.  Note that, under (b), it reads that the NFLPA and NFL will agree “over the next several weeks” to develop appropriate blood testing.

Today, 20 months after the CBA was ratified, the two sides have yet to agree on the parameters of the testing.

Because these terms have yet to be agreed upon by the NFL and NFLPA there has been zero blood testing in the NFL during this period of time. Remember, human growth hormone, or as it is colloquially recognized by its acronym form HGH, can only be recognized through blood testing.

So despite the methodical system of steroid and narcotic testing the NFL employs, and the presence of HGH on the league's banned substance list, a player using HGH can't be detected through the NFL's standard urine testing.

Translation: Any NFL player who has used, or is using, HGH over the past two seasons has done so without fear of punishment.

Yes NFL fans, we've all been hoodwinked.

Instead of testing for HGH, the players are expected to follow a code of honor and resist the temptation to use the powerful supplement. As we saw in baseball during the 1990's, if you expect result-driven athletes to surrender an easy opportunity to acquire a competitive edge and to deepen their bank accounts, you will end up disappointed.  

And as of today, the coming 2013 NFL season will continue to operate under the honor system.    

But what is the degree of usage?

The answer, unfortunately, can only be speculated. Washington Redskins veteran linebacker London Fletcher, an advocate for blood testing, alleges “at least 10 percent” of the league uses HGH. Former Vikings and Saints safety and current NFL Network analyst Darren Sharper alleges a more significant and concerning estimate of 50 percent.

Propelling hopes that a less-speculative figure can be tabulated, two members of the United States Congress have informed the NFLPA that they plan to inquire the degree of HGH usage in the NFL by calling for players to testify before a committee. 

But until such a committee is formed, we're left with unsatisfactory speculation. 

The flaws in the NFL’s drug policy are not limited to its inability to detect HGH.

Since the 2012 offseason, 15 players have been suspended for failing the league’s substance abuse policy, the most recent of which was Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Justin Blackmon.

A convenient stipulation under the CBA prohibits the team and the league from announcing which of the litany of banned substances the player tested positive for. By not distinguishing the drug, the player in turn commands the control over the public’s perception of the violation.

Essentially, the league is permitting the players to publicly plea down to a lesser, more socially acceptable banned substance such as marijuana or Adderall. 

Last year, Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman, Joe Haden, Aqib Talib and Eric Wright all contributed their failed tests to the ADHD medication.

But ask yourself this: if any Joe Schmo college kid can get a prescription to Adderall, couldn't a much wealthier, persuasive NFL football player acquire one if he so desired?

Further, with players having agents, managers and trainers in their inner circles, do you really believe that the players had no idea that un-prescribed Adderall was a banned substance? Hopefully you can't, which then begs the question: why would any NFL player risk suspension for a substance as unrewarding as Adderal?

You answered correctly. They wouldn't.  

By refusing the public the details of the toxicology reports, both the players and the league are insulating themselves from controversy.

The player’s benefit in terms of their legacy. Just look at how the legacy of Alex Rodriguez has diminished through the public realization of his PED usage. Contrastly, look at the public perception of Brian Cushing and Brandon Browner, two players who have served suspensions for the use of banned substances.

It will take a decade or so for the league to fully feel the benefit of the testing ambiguity. But they will certainly feel it when they are sitting in court, defending themselves against concussion litigation. Imagine if the prosecution was able to add excessive PED usage to their ammunition?

But they won't be able to.    

The Arizona Cardinals drafting of Tyrann Mathieu creates another conundrum for the NFL. Peter King of Sports Illustrated reported that the Cardinals plan on testing the troubled LSU product on a weekly basis. The NFLPA will throw a fit over this, as the CBA prohibits such testing.

Article 39, section 6 of the CBA states:

"No Club may conduct its own individual testing for anabolic steroids and related substances or drugs of abuse or alcohol."

The NFLPA has little choice but to fight for the Honey Badger. The dispute over the legality of Arizona testing Mathieu will only prolong the more significant HGH negotiations further.

Meaning another season of eyebrow-raising speculation. 

Adding to the mounting evidence of HGH outbreak in the NFL are the extraordinary events of healing that have occurred during the untested, post-CBA period; Peyton Manning returns from four neck surgeries—including the fusing of two vertebrae—to replicate his old quarterbacking excellence, Ray Lewis returns two months after tearing his triceps tendon and accumulates 51 postseason tackles despite initially being deemed out of the season by head coach John Harbaugh, Terrell Suggs returns only five months after tearing his Achilles tendon despite the league average rehabilitation for the injury being 11 months and Adrian Peterson’s super-human recovery after tearing both his MCL and ACL only to come within a few lowered shoulders from eclipsing the NFL’s single-season rushing record.

Advancements in medical science? Incredible coincidences? Perhaps.

Or perhaps the league’s 20-month negligence to strike a blood-testing deal with the NFLPA has created a lawless environment where cheating is business as usual, leaving the public to doubt the validity of any and every injury recovery, spike in production or spectacular physical feat.

The in-argueable platform for the Roger Goodell regime is player safety. The commissioner echoed his platform during his State of the NFL address in early February. A player safety platform is not derivative of Roger Goodell having the aching backs of the former NFL players. It's to diminish the league's culpability in approaching lawsuits.

Threat of concussion litigation has forced the league to respond aggressively. They have rendered any hard hit, clean or not, illegal and monetarily punishable. By result they have improved concussion testing and increased its awareness.  

Yet, they have allowed a substance that scientifically increases speed and strength to go un-checked, as if there is no correlation between the increase of concussions and the lack of HGH testing.

Just look at the number of concussions suffered per week over the last four years in the NFL.

Year Number of Concussion Per Week
2009 5.4
2010 7.6
2011 8.4
2012 10.6

At the steady growth of two concussions more per week, the NFL is enduring 34 more concussions each year.

That's 34 potential plaintiffs filing suits against the NFL. Each season.

The time for negotiating has passed. The league and the NFLPA must address HGH testing and create a more transparent system for releasing information concerning failed testing. 

If not for the sanctity of the game, then to protect themselves from the inevitable storm of player safety litigation approaching on the horizon that is threatening the league's financial stability.


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