How to Fix the NFL's Drug Policy

Nick Kostos@@thekostosContributor IJune 3, 2014

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at a press conference at the NFL's spring meeting, Tuesday, May 20, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
David Goldman/Associated Press

The NFL's drug policy is as splintered as it is ludicrous.

In regular society, domestic abuse is correctly viewed as a far more serious offense than lighting up a joint. But thanks to the league's draconian view on marijuana, taking a bong hit will earn an NFL player a harsher penalty than he'd get for striking a woman.

And while the NFL's backward stance on weed has taken center stage this offseason thanks to the suspension of Arizona Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington and the potential yearlong ban of Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon, it's not the only example of the league's broken drug policy.

Consider the following:

  • In August 2011, the league and union promised to develop guidelines in order to implement testing for human growth hormone "over the next several weeks." It's now June 2014, and no such plan is in place.
  • Due to confidentiality limits, the league is restricted from commenting on positive tests, leaving the guilty player and/or his agent to spin the narrative. This obviously frustrates teams which are enveloped by a shroud of secrecy.
  • As of right now, the league's DUI policy calls for a two-game fine (and no suspension) for a first-time offense. According to the NFL, smoking marijuana is worse than drunken driving. If you think that's beyond ridiculous, you're right.
  • And the league office and players union continue to snipe back and forth at each other, delaying a potential resolution to the fractured system.

The policy must be fixed. Here's how to accomplish that goal.

Lessen the Penalties for Marijuana

When it comes to its views on marijuana, the NFL is simply behind the times.

Marijuana is legalized in the two states that housed last season's Super Bowl participants (Washington and Colorado), and compared to regulations against it by other sports and entities, the NFL's stance is preposterous.

For example, the World Anti-Doping Agency has a higher threshold for a positive marijuana test than the NFL does. Just read that sentence again. It makes no sense, especially compared with the league's lesser penalties for more serious offenses like DUIs and domestic abuse.

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon will reportedly soon be suspended for marijuana use.
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon will reportedly soon be suspended for marijuana use.David Richard/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Whether you're a marijuana user or not, the fact remains that the drug is not a performance-enhancer. In fact, marijuana is used medically to treat pain and combat nausea in a variety of cases. When considering the violent, rough-and-tumble nature of the NFL, it stands to reason that marijuana could feasibly help a player cope with the pain that surely racks his body throughout the season.

The hypocrisy of the league's stance on marijuana has reached full throttle with the recent lawsuit headlined by former Chicago Bears' legends Jim McMahon and Richard Dent. According to the New York Daily NewsMichael O'Keeffe, it alleges that the league knowingly and illegally provided players with "narcotics and other painkillers" in a dual effort to keep guys on the field and ensure the coffers remained full.

For a league that is being accused of exposing its players to addiction in the name of a more competitive and entertaining product, its stance on marijuana becomes even more ridiculous.

This past January, Commissioner Roger Goodell gave hope that the league could eventually look at the medicinal value of marijuana, telling Chris Strauss of USA Today:

I'm not a medical expert. We will obviously follow signs. We will follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that. Our medical experts are not saying that right now.

At his news conference before the Super Bowl, Goodell threw water on that notion, indicating that he had no plans to change the league's policy barring strong science and medical developments.

In a development that directly flies in the face of those comments, the House of Representatives recently voted to stop federal raids on those who use medical marijuana.

But it does appear the league is considering a renegotiation of the policy, per's Dan Graziano, that will increase the threshold on positive marijuana tests and lessen the penalties for those caught using it.

That is obviously good news, but it comes as too little, too late for players such as Gordon, Washington and former New York Giants safety Will Hill, who was released by the team Monday following his third suspension.

This is not meant to absolve players like Gordon, Washington and Hill of blame. While it's true that the league's current stance on marijuana is outdated and silly, the fact remains that each player knows the rules and the potential consequences. All three, in addition to many others, have let their teammates and organizations down with their questionable decision-making.

But the fact that Washington could be suspended for smoking weed when he's also been recently arrested in a domestic-abuse case borders on the absurd. 

It's encouraging that the NFL apparently recognizes that its policy on marijuana needs to be fixed, but in order for that to happen, it must also start dealing with the other elephant in the room: HGH.

Install Testing for HGH as Soon as Possible

In August 2011, the NFL and NFLPA were to institute testing for human growth hormone. In a delicious twist of irony, Major League Baseball, which has been tainted by performance-enhancing drugs, became the first professional sports league to test for HGH in January 2013, beating out the NFL.

The ESPN report that mentioned relaxing the league's marijuana policy also revealed that testing for HGH could soon come into effect. The problem is that continued disagreements between the NFL and NFLPA have delayed the measure for nearly three years.

NFLPA president Eric Winston.
NFLPA president Eric Winston.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

One of the primary issues is arbitration, as the players association is concerned that Goodell has the final say on matters relating to HGH testing. As it pertains to the subject, NFLPA president Eric Winston recently told reporters, "He (Goodell) wants to hold all the cards and he wants to be the judge, jury and executioner, and we're not going to go for an un-American system like that."

Under a proposed new policy, the NFLPA would prefer discipline appeals to go through an independent arbitrator, but the league appears ready to dig in for a fight, with NFL spokesman Greg Aiello sending the following email to ESPN, per Dan Graziano:

It's kind of funny because since 2011 the union has come up with one excuse after another to avoid implementing an agreement to test for HGH. First, it was the testing method; then it was the population study; now it's commissioner authority. Our commitment to testing is clear. The same cannot be said of the union.

Such posturing and gamesmanship will only delay the testing of HGH, which is a crying shame.

For a league that worries about safety as much as the NFL does, the lack of HGH testing is a significant affront to its players. HGH morphs athletes into bigger, stronger and faster versions of themselves and increases the risk of injury in violent, high-speed collisions. The fact that this testing is being held up because of a disagreement over the appeals process is insulting.

But it doesn't appear either side is willing to budge, at least not yet. While it would behoove the NFL and NFLPA to reach a happy medium, that is increasingly unlikely, meaning the fight over Goodell's ultimate authority will rage on, further delaying the testing of HGH.

And a delayed agreement on HGH testing means a delayed new drug policy, so both sides must work in concert to reach a suitable outcome. Too much is on the line.

Increase the Penalties for DUIs

One area where the NFL appears to be on the right track is increasing the penalties for DUIs, as a recent report from Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk suggested that first-time offenders would face a one-game suspension and be fined one game check.

Former Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent.
Former Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This action has likely been spurned by the tragic death of former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jerry Brown, who was killed when a car driven by intoxicated teammate Josh Brent crashed in December 2012.

It appears that the NFL and NFLPA are in agreement on this, which is a definite step in the right direction.

Decrease the Confidentiality Limits Surrounding Positive Tests

In the vast majority of positive tests, the NFL has kept silent, affording the guilty player and/or his agent to win the battle in the court of public opinion.

But a notable exception recently arose in the case of Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis.

Mathis, who was suspended for four games for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy, attempted to construct a narrative that he was taking a drug to help with fertility without knowing it contained an illegal substance.

In surprising fashion, the NFL fought back against his claims, seemingly going against the confidentiality limits in doing so. (Bleacher Report's R. Cory Smith has a thorough write-up of the proceedings here.)

This is a positive development, as too often the culpable party has been allowed to sway the public after the fact. In a proposed new policy, the league would be wise to ease up on confidentiality limits and allow for the opportunity to issue its side of the story.

The NFL surprisingly issued a public statement in the wake of Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis' positive PED test.
The NFL surprisingly issued a public statement in the wake of Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis' positive PED test.Michael Conroy/Associated Press/Associated Press

It's excellent that the NFL is reportedly looking to change the policy, but it cannot and must not let squabbling over Goodell's authority hold up a proposal. 

Too much is on the line, whether it's teams like the Browns reportedly losing a star player for an entire season due to marijuana or continued HGH usage causing more injuries on the field.

It's imperative that the NFL and NFLPA reach an agreement on HGH testing, limit the penalties for marijuana, amplify the punishment for DUI offenders and relax confidentiality limits surrounding positive tests.

That's how to fix the NFL's broken drug policy.

Nick Kostos is a featured NFL columnist for Bleacher Report and an executive producer for SiriusXM's Mad Dog Sports Radio. You can follow him on Twitter here. 


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