New NFL Drug Policies to Be a Major Improvement

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterOctober 3, 2014

Browns receiver Josh Gordon
Browns receiver Josh GordonEvan Vucci/Associated Press

Thanks in part to a year where the NFL has made just as many headlines off the field as on it, the league has put new drug policies in place to govern the conduct of both players and any other person within its purview. 

The NFL and NFL Players Association agreed on new drug policies on September 12, but the documents themselves had yet to be completed, leading to various questions and misunderstandings about the new policies. 

Bleacher Report has obtained copies of the two agreements. 

The first document, with the lengthy title "The National Football League Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse (2014), as agreed by the National Football League Players Association and the National Football League Management Council," pertains to all issues of what many consider "street drugs."

Substances like marijuana, MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly), cocaine, opiates, etc. are all considered substances of abuse and subject to this policy with its own schedule of testing and discipline. 

The second policy, with the much shorter title "National Football League Policy on Performance Enhancing Substances," covers any substance—now including human growth hormone—that might create a competitive advantage.

In addition to the newly included HGH, this second policy also covers things like anabolic steroids, testosterone and various masking agents.

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To break down what these new policies mean for players and the fans that love them, I pored over the documents with B/R's Lead Writer for Sports Medicine Will Carroll to shine a light on everything there is to know.

Blood Testing Will Be Much More Extensive Than Originally Reported

hGH testing has been a major issue on Roger Goodell's plate for some time.
hGH testing has been a major issue on Roger Goodell's plate for some time.Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

When the new drug policies were agreed upon, the number 40 was bandied about as the number of players that would be subject to the new testing process. Some believed, via a memo on the NFLPA website, that the number would be 40 players/week. 

That number is low when one considers all of the players not only on active game-day rosters, but also the much larger rosters at the beginning of training camps. 

Under Section 7 of the PED policy, that 40 number is referenced just as the NFLPA memo indicated—five players from eight randomly selected clubs—but that's only the tip of the iceberg for what the document differentiates as "serum (or blood) testing."

Previous PED policies did not allow for blood testing.
Previous PED policies did not allow for blood testing.Screenshot of new NFL policy taken by author.

Under Section 3.1 of the PED policy, the document indicates that every single player is subject to at least one annual PED test—the urine test that has been in use previously. Later, Section 7 allows for 20 percent of that total group that is selected for annual testing to be additionally tested via blood sample for growth hormones.

That's 20 percent of the NFL being tested at the beginning of training camp, before the 40 per week—though, the language makes it possible that numbers could overlap a bit as long as a player does not have blood drawn more than six times in the calendar year or exceed 24 urine and/or blood tests total. 

There's even more testing to be done.

In the offseason alone, 10 percent of each club's players will be subject to blood tests.

At the NFL scouting combine, 30 of the invitees each year will be tested. In a typical year, that would equate to about 10 percent of the total attendees subject to the pre-employment HGH test. Carroll notes that this is odd, and one would usually assume 100 percent pre-employment testing would be a given in circumstances like this, as it is with all other substances. 

Carroll also took note of the type of testing that will be used for both testosterone levels and HGH.

When it comes to elevated testosterone, the NFL will be looking for the ratio between testosterone and epitestosterone (T:E ratio) rather than using Carbon Isotope Ratio testing (CIR). Carroll calls the latter test the "gold standard."

This is similar to what BALCO founder Victor Conte said about the MLB policy back in 2012 to the San Francisco Chronicle:

Conte points out that MLB does use the CIR test, but only as a confirming test if the T/E Ratio Test shows a ratio above 4-to-1.

"They refer to the CIR test as the 'nail in the coffin test,' " Conte said. "Why not use that nail first?"

It is notable, as Carroll points out, that MLB is now using the CIR test more extensively and not just for the "nail in the coffin" as the NFL plans to do. 

As for HGH, Carroll calls this isoform test "easily beaten," with a 48-hour maximum window of opportunity and potentially as low as six. 

This echoes what ProPublica journalist David Epstein wrote for earlier this year, calling the use of isoform testing a "step in the wrong direction" for the league's testing policies and calling the test a "test of questionable value."

The amount of players assumed to be on HGH varies depending on whom one talks to, with fans usually assuming a far greater number than almost anyone in league circles.

However, in previous reporting I've done on the subject, I've yet to find anyone—in either NFL offices or among players—who assumes a great number of players are currently on the substance, let alone a majority. 

New Standards and Discipline for Marijuana Use Eliminate Excuses, Weaken Punishment

Under new policy, Gordon will return to the Browns later this year.
Under new policy, Gordon will return to the Browns later this year.Leon Halip/Getty Images

When Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon used second-hand smoke as the defense for his current suspension, many treated him with derision since the excuse is both easy and considered laughably impossible.

However, Gordon may have had more of a case than many believed. 

The former NFL standard for marijuana was 15 nanograms of THC per milliliter (ng/mL). This standard was incredibly low by almost any metric one uses. Most employers, MLB and even the U.S. military use a baseline of 50 ng/mL, while Olympic testing sets the limit at 150. 

Ron Borges recently wrote about this issue for Men's Journal for a column titled, "The NFL's Pot Problem" and quoted a league official on its stringent policy:

For years, the league remained unconcerned that its THC threshhold levels, set during a 1987 collective-bargaining agreement, were unreasonably low. Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior VP of labor policy and government affairs, says: "I would not call it substandard. I would say, do you want to detect it or not? Societal trends on usage may be changing, but we're talking about illegal activity for the most part."

That's...that's an odd way of looking at things. 

Back in 1985, a group of scientists published a study in the Journal of Forensic Science after testing THC levels due to passive inhalation of marijuana smoke. They found levels across the board depending on the type of test, but some levels were as high as 13 ng/mL and even 20 ng/mL after only 30 minutes of second-hand smoke exposure. 

Gordon's positive test was measured at 16 ng/mL, and when one factors in the possibility of prolonged exposure (as Gordon argued) and the advancement in potency of marijuana strains since 1985, it's actually quite plausible that Gordon's positive test was entirely because of second-hand smoke. 

The new substances of abuse policy sets the level of THC at 35 ng/mL. Still low by almost any standard but high enough to eliminate the excuse. In fact, the policy even states in Section 1.3.3: "Passive inhalation shall be precluded as a defense in any appeal hearing for discipline based on a Positive Test Result for marijuana."

This section on competitive balance was not in previous substances of abuse policies. Perhaps a reference to teams in cities where marijuana is legalized?
This section on competitive balance was not in previous substances of abuse policies. Perhaps a reference to teams in cities where marijuana is legalized?Screenshot of new NFL policy taken by the author

Publicly, the NFL has maintained a strong stance on marijuana in the face of legalization and decriminalization efforts across the country. Yet, in its new policy, the NFL has softened the discipline for a first offense of marijuana to two games rather than four for a first positive test of any other substance of abuse. 

Test positive for any other substance of abuse and it's a "three strikes and you're out" policy of a four-game-check fine, followed by a four-game suspension, followed by banishment. 

Screenshot of new NFL policy taken by author

Now, with marijuana, the league is treating it like a much-less serious substance with a two-week fine, then a four-week fine, four-game suspension, 10-week suspension and then banishment.  

If you're counting at home, that's two extra strikes. 

As the NFL continues to attempt to sweep back the tide with a broom when it comes to cultural norms about marijuana usage, this is a step in the right direction. It may never lead on the subject, but at least it's loosening up. 

Odds and Ends

Welker, now back for the Broncos, would not have been suspended initially if new policy had been in place.
Welker, now back for the Broncos, would not have been suspended initially if new policy had been in place.John Froschauer/Associated Press

A Dual Designation for Amphetamines

Hidden on page 10, in a footnote no less, is the following line:

If a test administered to a Player outside of the Playing Season generates a positive result for a stimulant listed on Appendix A, the Player will not be subject to discipline under this Policy, but will instead be treated as a behavioral referral to the Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse.

This means that the offseason use of amphetamines, like Adderall or speed, will no longer be subject to immediate suspensions. This is why Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker, among others, was able to return to the field earlier than originally thought. 

Much-Needed Changes to the Arbitration Process

Carroll notes the arbitration process is a "near-direct" copy of the MLB policy. It is more extensive than the old policy and lays out an accelerated process for appeals than previously expected. The old policy's section on "Appeal Rights" covered just under a page and only 340 words.

The new policy's section on appeals and related processes clocks in just under 2,700 words. 

This eliminates some of the wide-breadth that commissioner Roger Goodell had in the appeals process previously. 

Clarified Parameters for Therapeutic Use Exemptions

Not every PED is created equal, and the NFL has always allowed that some can be used by players assuming they are properly prescribed and a player receives clearance from the league via a "Therapeutic Use Exemption" (TUE). 

The old policy included one reference to the phrase and some asterisks of potentially allowable substances. The new policy includes a six-page appendix on specific allowances and even includes the form players need to fill out. 

Carroll thought the list was intriguing, saying: "It's three categories you'd expect, but the last two (blood pressure/low testosterone) indicate that they've at least had requests and have adjusted for that. MLB has to publish its numbers of TUEs, but the NFL specifically does not release that info."

Special thanks to Bleacher Report's Lead Writer for Sports Medicine Will Carroll for contributing to this report. 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.