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Long-Awaited NFL Drug Policy to be Put to the Test

By Alexandra Goldstein

Last week the National Football League (NFL, League) and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) unveiled a series of improvements to overhaul the League's performance enhancing substance and substance abuse policies, including the addition of human growth hormone (HGH) testing.

I. Performance Enhancing Substance Policy.

The new performance enhancing substance policy is the culmination of over three years of negotiations, which began just prior to the 2011 NFL season when the parties were negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). At the time, the NFL pushed to implement HGH testing; the NFLPA countered that there was not a reliable test for HGH and any testing would therefore be premature. In order to ratify the CBA and move forward with the 2011 NFL season, the parties agreed to HGH testing in principle, tabling a discussion of specific methods. The final 2011 CBA codified the parties' intentions to collectively develop an HGH testing protocol over "several weeks," however once the CBA was signed, negotiations on HGH testing stalled.

The new policy ushers in changes in disciplinary procedures and appeals. A player's first violation of the policy will result in suspension without pay for up to six games. The length of the suspension will depend on the violation: a player will receive a two game suspension for the use of masking agents, such as diuretics; a four game suspension for testing positive for HGH or other banned substances; and a six game suspension in the event that the player attempts to tamper with the test. After a player's first violation, they are subject to escalating suspensions; a second violation will result in a player being suspended without pay for 10 games, and in the event of a third violation, a player will be banned from the League for a minimum of two years.

Previously, a player who tested positive during the off-season was subject to the same suspension lengths as in-season violations. Under the new policy, a player who violates the policy during the off-season will be referred to the League's substance abuse program. Due to the change to how off-season violations are handled, the NFL and NFLPA announced that three players who had previously been suspended for four games under the League's old performance enhancing substance policy had been reinstated. The suspensions of Wes Welker of the Denver Broncos, Orlando Scandrick of the Dallas Cowboys, and Stedman Bailey of the St. Louis Rams were retroactively shortened, which made them eligible to return to their teams and play in week three.

The League's new policy brings the NFL closer to being in-line with the existing Major League Baseball (MLB) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) HGH testing. The IOC began implementing HGH testing during the 2004 Athens Olympics. At the time, testing was limited to detecting HGH use within hours; in 2012, they implemented a new biomarker test capable of detecting HGH use within weeks. In January 2013, the MLB and MLB Players Association announced that they would begin random in-season HGH testing, as well as testing all players for baseline testosterone levels that could help identify changes indicative of HGH use. The NBA and NHL have yet to implement HGH testing, but both leagues have expressed interest in revising their drug policies to include HGH.

II. Substance Abuse Policy.

The NFL and NFLPA also announced updates to their substance abuse policy, which notably includes marijuana and alcohol use. While marijuana rules have been relaxed, the League is toughening-up on DUI offenses.

Under the new policy, the threshold for a positive marijuana test has been raised from 5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) to 35 ng/ml. Despite more than doubling the threshold, 35 ng/ml still sits on the low-end of the spectrum for sports-based marijuana testing; the MLB rules only kick-in at 50 ng/ml and the IOC allows athletes to skate on anything below 150 ng/ml.

The new policy also adds two stages to the previous series of suspensions. Under the old substance abuse policy, a player was referred to the League's substances abuse program for his first violation of the marijuana policy, with subsequent violations receiving a four game fine, a four game suspension, and a one-year ban from the NFL. The new policy adds a two game fine before a four game fine, and a 10-game suspension will be levied before a player received a one-year banishment. Due to the implementation of additional stages, previously banned Cleveland Brown's wide-receiver, Josh Gordon, will receive a retroactive 10-game suspension, making him eligible for play beginning in week 11.

While marijuana rules have been relaxed, more stringent policies have been implemented for a DUI. A player's first offense will result in a two game suspension without pay, whereas a player will be suspended without pay for at least eight games for a second DUI. In either event, a player can be suspended for additional games, where there are extenuating circumstances, such as a death or the egregious nature of the DUI offense.

III. Impact.

Despite the lengthy negotiation period, fines and suspensions under the new policies will be implemented immediately. Under the performance enhancing substance abuse policy, HGH testing is set to begin as soon as the end of this month, though more likely during the first few weeks of October.

Reaction to the new policies has been mostly positive, with many seeing it as a long overdue response to broader attitudes about drug and alcohol use. The new policies also mark a shift in power - while under most circumstances, Commissioner Roger Goodell retained the exclusive power to hear appeals under the old policy, appeals will now be put before "third-party arbitrators jointly selected and retained by the NFL and NFLPA."

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 23, 2014 12:58 PM.

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