The NFL's disciplinary system is getting blasted yet again, and rightfully so.
This off-season has seen several inconsistent and tone-deaf disciplinary decisions from commissioner Roger Goodell's office, making it clear that reason and logic aren't exactly virtues the league holds dear.
This week, Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker learned that he would be suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league's performance enhancing drugs policy. The drug in question was an illegal amphetamine, and Welker claims he isn't sure how it ended up in his system. The prevailing theory from a few sources is that it was through a tainted dose of Molly, and it may have been ingested intentionally.
Welker denies taking the drug. In an email to the Denver Post, Welker emphatically stated that he "wouldn't have any idea where to get a Molly or what a Molly is." He added, "that's a joke. I don't do marijuana, I don't do drugs." Is the decidedly un-hip wording intentional?
His case is similar to that of Dallas Cowboys defensive back Orlando Scandrick, who also tested positive for amphetamines earlier this off-season. Scandrick blamed his positive test on a similarly tainted dose of Molly taken while on vacation. He was hit with the same four-game suspension.
Both players argued that because they had ingested the amphetamines unknowingly, they should be punished under the league's substance abuse policy, as opposed to the PED guidelines (under which the first violation carries the automatic four-game ban, and yes, MDMA and the amphetamines in question are in fact two different, and separately tested substances).
The suspensions are obscuring a problematic aspect of the league's testing approach: Why are amphetamines tested for during the off-season?
Amphetamines are a performance enhancer, rather than a training drug. That may sound like the same thing, but it's quite different when you consider that Welker and Scandrick tested positive in the off-season. In other words, the drug doesn't have long-term performance benefits, as opposed anabolic steroids or human growth hormone, for example. Regardless of how the drugs entered their systems, if they were seeking to illegally enhance their playing performance, they didn't take the most strategic approach. The effects wear off within hours, and are gone completely from the system within 2-4 days. It seems plausible that neither player was seeking an illegal advantage on the field, and therefore, shouldn't be suspended as such.
The NFL denied both appeals.
Testing for amphetamines during the off-season under the guise of protecting the game from PEDs is disingenuous. This policy needs serious adjustment.
Nowhere near as much adjustment as the substance abuse program, however.
Earlier this year, Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon failed a drug test for marijuana. Gordon was in stage 3 of the NFL's substance abuse program due to previous violations. This meant any further infraction could result in a calendar year-long suspension. Losing a year's salary for recreationally using weed is ridiculous. And yet, it gets worse.
Image Credit: AP
Gordon was already in "Stage One" of the substance abuse program for a positive marijuana test in college, before he turned pro. As soon as he entered the NFL, he immediately had one strike against him. He tested positive as a student-athlete, served a lengthy suspension, only to be punished again in the NFL, a corporation with zero authority over NCAA athletes. This effectively amounts to collusion between the NCAA and the NFL, a practice both are already familiar with.
Gordon's only prior failed test as a pro was dubious, as well. He was suspended for two games and docked four game checks for using a prescribed cough medicine containing codeine while recovering from strep throat. Codeine is a banned substance under the policy, prescription or otherwise. And yes, codeine, or lean/drank/sizzurp, is very frequently used well outside its prescribed medicinal purposes, but, the NFL has a long and storied history of sanctioned painkiller abuse.
This brings us to that latest failed test — a violation of the dreaded Stage Three. Here we see the full extent of Gordons railroading. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported some of the absurdities of the NFL's testing program and Gordon's specific case in late July:
Urine samples routinely are split into two bottles, the "A" bottle and the "B" bottle. If the "A" bottle generates a positive result, the "B" bottle is tested. Amazingly, the "B" bottle doesn’t have to independently show a violation. Instead, the substance abuse policy states that the "'B' bottle Test need only show that the substance, revealed in the 'A' bottle Test, is evident to the 'limits of detection' to confirm the results of the 'A' bottle Test." For Gordon, the "A" bottle showed a concentration of 16 ng/ml, only one nanogram per milliliter above the limits of 15. The "B" bottle showed a concentration of 13.6 ng/ml — less than the threshold.
If the testers had just grabbed the other bottle first, (50/50 odds!) this is a non-issue. Even if the NFL went by the average of the two samples, Gordon would still fall below the super low 15 ng/ml threshold (the World Anti-Doping Agency's threshold is, incredibly, 10 times higher).
He exceeded the limit by such a minuscule amount that it could easily be the result of second-hand smoke. The fact that Gordon was tested so frequently, and passed so frequently (reportedly 70 negative tests), makes that all the more plausible. Gordon and his lawyers argued this in their appeal.
The NFL rejected it, again. Sixteen games: upheld.
Image Credit: AP
Before we go any further, let's get this out of the way. Welker, Scandrick and Gordon should in no way be absolved of all responsibility. The NFL's substance abuse policy, while overreaching and heavy-handed, was agreed to in the collective bargaining process by the player's union (why they agreed is another question, and yet, the owners incorrectly demanded the policies). Gordon was aware of the dire consequences of another failed test, and given his past issues w/substance abuse, he may need help getting his demons under control.
That said, a suspension for party drugs that's twice as harsh as the one Ray Rice received for violent domestic assault? A suspension for weed that's eight times as harsh? Beyond crazy. The NFL has made this much clear — despite Goodell's pointless and pandering letter to teams saying otherwise, it cares more about punishing players for recreational drug use in the off-season than it does punishing them for domestic abuse.
Hopefully, some real change is on it's way.