Insider's Perspective on NFL Drug Tests

Ryan Riddle@@Ryan_RiddleCorrespondent IJune 11, 2013

Seattle's Bruce Irvin was recently suspended 4 games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Seattle's Bruce Irvin was recently suspended 4 games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

 Drug testing is an essential part of the NFL. In fact, the NFL tests more aggressively than any other sport in the world, including the Olympics, according to Lori Nickel of the Journal Sentinel.

Sometimes that process can fail, just as it did last season with Richard Sherman.

Normally this necessary process is the only thing standing between a league brimming with maxed-out juicers and a truly even playing field, unless we’re considering Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which the league is still not testing for, although, change is likely on horizon.

So what’s it like to be drug tested in the NFL?

The process is rather simple.

Typically, standard drug testing is conducted at the team’s facility by a third-party technician who has no affiliation with the team. The league hires a company called the National Center for Drug Free Sport, who then trains technicians to serve as collectors.

This designated tester first asks to see your driver’s license or some form of official photo identification to confirm the person of interest is actually present. The tester then hands the player a small, see-through plastic cup that is individually wrapped in its own clear, plastic cover.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   In order to prevent contamination, the technician instructs you to break the seal by personally removing the small piece of colored tape used to prevent tampering. Once the plastic wrap is discarded, the cup still has a lid, which should only be removed by the player taking the test.

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Players taking the test are then ushered into a bathroom stall where they must fill the cup with urine to the designated line. Depending on the situation, the tester may have you do this either within his observable view, or have you go into a bathroom stall nearby.

For example, we were given no privacy when providing a sample during the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Yet, all the drug tests I’ve completed at a team facility were done without a direct witness while filling the cup with a urine sample.

The reason for this inconsistency is uncertain. Perhaps the gravity of a drug test aiding in the team’s decision-making process, like that of the combine, is done with greater precaution. Or it could be that the random nature of the other drug tests decreases the need for a direct witness.

In any case, once the cup is adequately filled, you then put the lid on (carefully) and take it back to the tester. At that point you’re required to watch as the tester takes out two small, plastic vials resembling test tubes found in a chemistry lab, each sealed and color coded. He then has the test subject break the seal of each vial as they watch him carefully divide the urine into the two separate bottles before having you personally reseal each color-coded strip of tape designed to break if tampered with.

A broken seal at any point in the journey from the acquisition phase to the lab renders the sample useless.

Once the collection process is complete and the sample is secured, the technician puts the urine samples into individual boxes for shipping before sealing those as well. One sample is sent to the lab to be analyzed while the other is cataloged as both reference and a potential backup should irregularities somehow emerge.

The final step in the process is a legally binding agreement between both the player and the technician. Each party must sign off on the process stating that everything appeared to be up to standard. Back when I played in the league, the agreement was done a piece of paper, but these days that process has become fully digital.

How often are guys tested?

According to NFL Senior Vice President Adolpho Birch in an interview conducted by Lori Nickel of the Journal Sentinel:

During the season we test in the neighborhood of 350 a week. Ten players, per team, per week. Plus other players who are tested because they’re under reasonable cause. That’s from the first preseason game all the way until the Super Bowl. After that, an individual player can be tested up to, a maximum, of six times in the offseason. We do a quarter or more of our testing during that offseason program just from an effectiveness standpoint. You have to monitor the offseason in order to be effective.

Each year before the start of training camp every player on the roster is tested for both performance enhancing drugs and street drugs. For guys not in the NFL drug program, this surprisingly is the only time the entire year that an NFL player is tested for illegal street drugs.

This means athletes in the NFL can partake freely in whatever illegal drugs they choose as long as they don’t show up on the banned substance list. This is why we never hear about guys getting suspended for illegal street drugs in the NFL.

However, if a player enters the NFL with a confirmed history of drug or alcohol issues, he is then implemented into the NFL’s anonymous substance abuse program. While in the program, that player can be tested at random at any given point throughout the year no matter where they are in the country.

When it comes to testing for steroids and other performance enhancement drugs, the NFL policy is supposed to conduct random drug tests throughout the NFL season and to a lesser degree in the offseason. With that said, I have never been randomly drug tested for steroids in my three years playing in the NFL.

Perhaps it was my lack of bulging muscles that saved me from the hassles of PED testing. I suppose testing me for steroids would have been a pretty obvious waste of time and resources seeing how I barely looked like I knew what a weight room was. 

Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Before B/R, Ryan played for the Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.


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