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Drug-Testing in the NFL: Efficacy or Hypocrisy?

Team TFS
Team TFS
shutterstock_210721402In late 2014, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) approved sweeping changes to the NFL's drug policy. In addition to testing for human growth hormone (HGH) for the first time in league history, the policy also increased permitted threshold for a positive test from 15 nanograms of carboxy THC per milliliter of urine to 35 nanograms.

At the time of the approval, the Commissioner of the National Football League (NFL), Roger Goodell, proclaimed that “the NFL and NFLPA once again have the finest and most comprehensive set of drug policies in sports.” But according to some anti-doping experts, that statement might be selling a false bill of goods.

The Fox Guarding the Hen House

Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), believes that when professional sports leagues create and oversee their own drug-testing programs, it creates a conflict of interest. “It’s hard to police and promote at the same time,” he says.

Penn State professor Charles Yesalis, a longtime anti-doping expert who has been critical of testing programs in the NFL and other professional leagues, believes the NFL’s drug-testing policy is all about business. “They put in place something that gives them plausible deniability without hurting what their customers want,” Yesalis claims.

Drug-testing programs in American pro sports are largely a function of a collective bargaining agreement between the players’ unions and the leagues. While WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) oversees most Olympic sports, there aren’t any players’ unions involved. And let’s face it: Olympic sports aren’t on a par with professional sports when it comes to television contracts and the billions of dollars that flow into sports like Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the NFL.

“Whether they use the WADA (prohibited substance) list or not, you only know what’s being done in the testing process (based on) what they want you to know,” Yesalis says. “You still have the fox guarding the hen house.”

One significant element the NFL program lacks when compared to WADA’s guidelines is transparency. The NFL drug-testing policy outlines specific penalties for divulging information about a positive test that can result in fines up to $500,000.

Testing protocol is another problem with the NFL’s model. While notification of drug-testing on off-days or during the off-season might be random or unannounced, players have 24 hours to report to a collection agency to provide a sample. (Behind the Shield: NFL Drug Testing Policy Not As Good As Sold)

“You can’t give advanced notice for testing for it to be effective,” says USADA’s Travis Tygart.

Separate but Not Equal

When it comes to recreational drugs and PEDs, the NFL has separate policies for each. Testing for recreational drugs and painkillers is done during the offseason and training camp (more on that below), while the testing for PEDs goes year around, with different collection protocols for offseason and during the season.

Representatives of the NFL and the NFLPA touted the league’s new drug-testing program as having several upgrades when it comes to testing for PEDs, but numerous doping experts believe the policy contains loopholes when compared to the Olympic-style testing, which uses two separate tests for human growth hormone (HGH):

  • The biomarker test, which examines specific chemical fingerprints of synthetic HGH and can trace use from several weeks back.

  • The isoform test, which measures substances in the blood that are briefly thrown out of whack by an injection of synthetic HGH and has a stated detection window of 24 to 48 hours, although many experts say it’s more like 10 to 20 hours.

The current NFL drug-policy uses the isoform test.

But blood testing in the NFL isn’t done on game days. And if you’re selected for testing on an off-day or during the offseason, that’s when the 24 hour window of opportunity kicks in before a player has to report to a collection agency. What this means is that a player can inject HGH the night before a game—or on an off-day or at any time during the offseason—with little chance of failing the isoform test because they won’t be tested right away.

The Need for Speed

When it comes to gaining a competitive edge, many doping gurus claim that amphetamines and other stimulants are often more vital than steroids for an NFL player. Not only do stimulants increase focus during games, they also mask pain, reduce fatigue, and short-circuit the natural fear that comes with playing a sport as violent as professional football.

“If you want to jack somebody up, forget steroids,” says Charles Yesalis. “Give them amphetamines.”

While the new NFL drug policy has increased the number of banned stimulants to match WADA’s list and the program specifies that urine testing can be conducted on any day, urine testing to detect stimulants is rarely done on game days, which is when testing would have the best results since many stimulants can exit the body in a matter of hours or days. But even with game-day urine tests, players can claim a therapeutic-use exemption to take amphetamines such as Adderall or Ritalin to treat ADD.

Richard Sherman, the star cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, is just one player who has tested positive for Adderall. He won his appeal due to procedural errors in collecting and testing the urine sample. In a statement made in April 2013, Sherman claimed that “about half the league takes it (Adderall).”

Learn more

NFLPA Approves New Drug Policy; HGH Testing Included

Understanding the NFL’s Performance-Enhancing Substance Policy

NFLPA Drug Policies