Breaking Down How the NFL Substance Abuse Policy Works

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterDecember 4, 2013

Von Miller started the season on suspension for a drug violation.
Von Miller started the season on suspension for a drug violation.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

"Did you hear the one about the player who's on drugs?"

Watercooler talk is one of the things that makes sports worth watching. Sure the excitement and pageantry of the actual game is the main event, but we love to talk about sports.

Discussing sports can be tricky, however, when news breaks and no one has any ideas as to what it means. I'm not talking high-level analysis of a play, trade or free-agency signing. No, far more elusive is the news that "Favorite Player X" peed in a cup and things went wrong. 

The first assumption is steroids—or, at least, "steroids" as a blanket term for performance-enhancing substances that probably aren't nearly as insidious as steroids, but the word gets thrown around like beads at Mardi Gras. 

The second assumption—for better or for worse—is probably going to be that it's marijuana.

Of course, the assumption is sometimes correct, as NFL players like Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and Atlanta Falcons running back Jason Snelling have both been recently arrested for the substance. 

Still, both of those assumptions are pretty far-fetched to make without evidence. 

The eventual defense that many have learned to expect is Adderall—the methamphetamine-based drug that has gained wide popularity both among ACT-takers and athletes. The NFL allows an exemption for Adderall (more on that later), but many have claimed their failed drug test was simply because they "forgot" to get an exemption. (Note: Isn't Adderall supposed to help you remember stuff like that?) 

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman explained the matter, in part, to Mike Beamish of the Vancouver Sun in April after winning an appeal over Adderall (via NFL.com):

About half the league takes it, and the league has to allow it. The league made a mistake in my case. Obviously, I didn't do anything, but you have to go through a process to prove you didn't do anything. There are still naysayers out there who don't believe me. But I accept it. If everybody loves you, it probably means you're not much of a player.

So, what is the NFL substance abuse policy? Is it one size fits all? Why is there so much secrecy? 

A Tale of Two Policies

A player testing for illegal substances is actually under two completely separate and distinct policies. Together, the paperwork that the player (and his representation) has to be responsible for is 60 pages of legalese. 

First, the "National Football League Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances" handles everything one would normally consider "performance enhancing." It's only 28 pages long, with great subheadings like: "Procedures Regarding Testosterone" and "Calculation of Bonus Forfeiture." You know, in case you're ever in the mood for some light reading. 

The "fun stuff" is handled under the "National Football League Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse." It's 32 pages and covers anything recreational or non-approved medicinally. If you're wondering if there's overlap between something that could be both a substance of abuse and performance enhancing, you're correct—at least logically. How the NFL handles each specific questionable case is up to it. 

The "Substances of Abuse" document also covers alcohol. While it is certainly OK for men past 21 to imbibe whatever alcoholic beverages they choose, the policy maintains procedures for players who have abused the substance in the past. It provides avenues for treatment and counseling, and mandates sobriety for said players. It is one of the many areas where a player who wants to be in the NFL must live under a policy some other "normal" people might not have because he's playing for a multibillion dollar company. 

That said, NFL players are hardly the only employees in the world asked to stay sober. 

Both policies were agreed upon between the league and the NFL Players Association in June of this year. Both policies contain lists of banned substances or types of banned substances. Both policies have a schedule of penalties with an explanation of appeal process and further testing procedures.

It's a lot to digest, but in short: Just because a player failed a drug test doesn't mean he failed under one or the other. In order to properly assess what sort of substance caused the failed test, one must understand which policy the player is being disciplined under. Sometimes that news comes out—other times, we're just left wondering.  

What Goes Into the Enforcement of these Policies?

Roger Goodell: Judge, Jury, Executioner...Pee Collector.
Roger Goodell: Judge, Jury, Executioner...Pee Collector.Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Both policies outline the type and frequency of tests that players are supposed to expect along with their employment in the NFL. 

The tests are urine tests. Blood tests, for the union and its players, are a big no-no. Yes, many of the world's biggest, fastest and strongest individuals still hate needles. More than that, though, is the unknown of having blood drawn when one trains so hard—especially when a dip in a single practice or game performance could mean the difference between having a job and fulfilling one's dream or being out on the street. 

This, you might remember, was once a big hurdle to HGH testing—which is a whole different matter entirely!

As for the frequency of the tests: Wow, is there a lot!

For anabolic steroids and related substances: Upon employment—entering the league (predraft) or signing with a new team—you can be tested. During the offseason, you can be randomly tested up to six times. This includes free agents who don't have a team. To "opt out" of this testing, you have to be formally retired. During the preseason/season/postseason, 10 players can be randomly tested each week. 

For the substances of abuse agreement, each player will be tested during the preseason. Any other testings happen upon agreement in the player's contract—which may be different for different players. 

However, and this is where it gets tricky, once you test positively for any of the above substances, it's game over—effective immediately. That player needs to basically be ready to pee in any cup, any time, anywhere as mandated by the NFL's medical officers. 

What Kind of Penalties are Available for Use of Banned Substances?

Brandon Browner is currently fighting a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's drug policy.
Brandon Browner is currently fighting a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's drug policy.Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Get ready to cut a check! Or, just not play...

For anabolic steroids and related substances, it's a suspension. The suspensions escalate with recurring offenses. All suspensions are unpaid. Worse yet, if a player makes the news because of said banned substance, it would not be at all surprising for him to also get a check-in from local/federal law enforcement. Steroids are a no-no against the law as well as this NFL policy. 

Just say no!

For recreational drugs, the penalties are set up in stages. Anyone with a positive test (pre or postdraft) enters the program. Failure to comply with the program's zero-tolerance policy carries a penalty dependent on which step of the program the player is in. 

In Stage 1, the fine is three-seventeenths of an amount specified in the player's contract. That percentage escalates to four-seventeenths in the next step. These also go along with suspensions. In Stage 3, the penalty is banishment from the league for one calendar year. 

The league can also punish players for tampered testing samples and for any time they have run-ins with the law (i.e. a DUI or possession charge). 

What Rights Do the Players Have?

Richard Sherman won a rare appeal against the NFL.
Richard Sherman won a rare appeal against the NFL.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

So a player has a positive test. Then what?

First, remember that some drugs are allowed for players with legitimate medical reasons to take them. Players who are legitimately prescribed an otherwise-banned substance can apply for a "therapeutic use exemption." The number of such exemptions are private, as are the substances they're granted for. 

OK, so assuming that the player as a positive test and doesn't have an exemption. What then?

The way we talk about any kind of criminality with athletes is usually upside down. That situation is no different with substance abuse. A positive test can mean a lot of things, but rather than exhaust all the possible things it could mean, fans (and media) often jump to the simplest possible explanation—that the player took the substance. It's sports' very own Occam's Razor. 

Well, our country isn't supposed to work like that—remember, innocent until proven guilty. So, because the NFL is a collectively bargained entity with rights for the players, the NFL doesn't work like that either...even if the court of public opinion wants to prematurely convict them. 

Upon testing positively for a banned performance-enhancing drug, the player is notified and the sample (having already been split) will be retested. So, if the "A" bottle tested positive, the "B" bottle has to be tested before any punishment is doled out. Interestingly enough, the pre-employment testing of the second sample can be monitored by a qualified toxicologist hired by the player. 

If you thought the draft wasn't big business before...

The player also gets a mandated physical examination. Some positive samples could, at least hypothetically, be levels of naturally occurring chemicals that are just out of whack. If the banned substance was taken accidentally or in good faith, this is also a good opportunity to make sure it didn't do any lasting damage and to educate the player. This could also include psychological examinations for possible addiction. 

Under both policies, there is a specific appeals process set in front of either the commissioner or a designated hearing officer. Penalties are thus stayed during the appeals process. Perhaps more importantly, the burden of proof is placed on the league during this process in terms of collection procedures, chain of custody, etc. 

No, it isn't just "getting off on a technicality." It's how justice is supposed to work—even for athletes. 

Finally, the players have a right to confidentiality under both these agreements. Agents hate it when a supposedly confidential medical procedure becomes dirty laundry being aired about—especially because misinformation tends to fly around at the same time. 

A league source confided in me recently that at least two suspensions in his time around the league had been erroneously reported as a substance it wasn't. A lot of entities have reason to make up news around a positive test—including both sides of the player/team aisle and less-scrupulous media hounds looking for a story. This misinformation can be created to make the positive test look either more or less serious, for a multitude of reasons. 

The bottom line for an NFL player is that part of their job is managing what goes into their body. Lots of designer supplements come out that promise huge personal gains, but if they contain banned substances, they're a no-no, and naiveté isn't an excuse. Moreover, conducting one's self professionally is also part of the job, and that means following the law as it pertains to a lot of things, but especially recreational substances.

There's very little excuse for a player to be suspended under one of these policies, but the NFL is confident that the procedures in place make sure no one slips through the cracks. It's a higher standard that NFL players are held to, because the NFL isn't just a game—it's a very important and profitable business.   

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 at The Go Route and follow him on Twitter.