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Cleaning Up The NFL's PED Problem

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What will it take for the NFL to take the necessary measures to clean up the sport? Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
What will it take for the NFL to take the necessary measures to clean up the sport? Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The NFL was applauded for taking initiative with a blood test for human growth hormone (HGH) after they agreed with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) to implement a testing program in the Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011. However, talks have continuously stalled since then, and after prolonged negotiations, the NFL is finally inching closer to that goal.

The NFL and NFLPA recently agreed in principle to a population study that would require blood to be drawn from every single player in training camp. The NFLPA sent a memo to the players, saying, “In preparation for training camp, you should be prepared to provide a sample of blood for your routine and required training camp physical.”

This is the first real progress that has been made since 2011, and it’s about time they took steps toward leveling the playing field.

The tests done in this population study will be compared against a former group of players that are being used as a control group, and it will give the league a base in order to determine a threshold for what would be deemed a positive HGH test. However, no players will be suspended for HGH use this season, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Coming up with a viable testing procedure is, without question, the most important step, but the NFL is approaching this the wrong way. As pointed out by Sports Illustrated’s Dave Epstein, if a large percentage of NFL players are already taking HGH (and it’s long been suspected that they are), the threshold for a positive test for HGH would be so high that it would be nearly impossible to catch players for using it in the future. They could potentially remove the outliers — players that test so high that it’s obvious they’re taking HGH — but how exactly the NFL decides to process the results of the study have not yet been made available.

The NFL also seems to believe that their players are a different breed and in a category of their own. But, in reality, the isoform ratio — which is what the NFL plans to test for — of each player should be relatively stable over time. In essence, considering all the limitations and obstacles for testing in the NFL already in place, the test that they plan to use isn’t the soundest method to reliably catch HGH users. Without boring you with the details over the isoform testing process being considered by the league (Epstein’s piece goes into great detail on that), the biomarker test that was used during the London Olympics is what the NFL should really be using.

Instead of trying to isolate themselves, the NFL should be proactively working with organizations like the World Anti-Doping Agency, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and Major League Baseball (MLB). They should collaborate with these groups in order to bolster their own methods to catch offenders instead of trying to rewrite the book.

Players looking to get an edge, whether through HGH or some other means, will always be looking to get around the testing procedures used by the NFL. The USADA has detailed accounts on its website by cyclists who have used sophisticated measures in order to avoid detection from one of the top anti-doping agencies in the world, so it’s clear that the NFL has its work cut out for itself in coming up with proper testing procedures to catch those that are willing to go the extra mile to avoid detection (which is where a collaborative approach with other organizations would be useful).

The next priority for the league after developing a viable testing method would be to create a tier system for banned substances and assign appropriate punishments for each of them. There are a number of PEDs that are commonly used by athletes, but the most common types fall under four categories: anabolic steroids, HGH, stimulants and supplements. However, for some reason, the NFL chooses to lump all PEDs together instead of separating them into different classes. The penalty for taking Adderall should not be the same as using steroids (they really aren’t in the same ballpark). It would make sense to categorize masking agents with the more serious substances like steroids but not the relatively harmless substances.

In addition to the tier system, the NFL should publicly disclose the substance that led to the violation. Adderall use is constantly “leaked” as the source of the violation, but no one really knows for sure since the NFL inexplicably categorizes all banned substances together. Perhaps some transparency and public shaming is what’s needed to help cut down on the use of more serious substances such as steroids. The public will overlook something simple as not getting a prescription for Adderall to treat ADHD, but once steroids or HGH are involved, then the pitchforks and torches will come out.

Continuing on the idea of a tier system, if the NFL wants to seriously cut down on the use of PEDs, enforcing stricter penalties may be the only way to do so. As it stands now, players receive a four-game suspension for the first offense, eight games for the second and a one-year ban for the third.

For those that decide to cross the line and risk the consequences, the current penalties in place are not the strongest of deterrents.

For the sake of argument, we’ll place steroids and HGH as a tier-one offense. If the suspension for the first tier-one offense ranged from eight to ten games, the second a full year and the third a permanent ban from the sport, do you think players would think twice about taking one of those banned substances?

A permanent ban from the NFL sounds harsh, but hear me out.

The first time a player violates the PED policy, it can be forgiven as a poor choice in judgment; the second time it happens, then it looks like it may be a legitimate problem; and the third time it happens, it’s clear that the player will continue to violate the rule with little regard for the consequences — which, in this case, would be taking away their livelihood. This would send a clear message to players that the use of banned substances to get an edge on the competition will not be tolerated.

MLB and the National Hockey League (NHL) already have a three strikes policy, so why not the NFL? A player that willingly risks a permanent ban should be given no sympathy, and they certainly don’t deserve any mercy.

If Alex Rodriguez's and Ryan Braun’s recent suspensions by MLB has taught us anything, it’s that cheating pays … and it pays well. The biggest incentive for players looking to get an advantage on the field through PEDs is money — better production generally tends to lead to bigger paychecks. If teams were also allowed to completely void the contract of a player for violating the league’s policy on PEDs, whether it’s the first or second offense, how many players — particularly the star players with big-time deals — would be willing to risk putting a banned substance into their bodies? Once the NFL makes it clear that teams can easily take that undeserved money away from them, the incentive to risk cheating should, theoretically, begin to diminish (this is not an exact science; some players will still likely be caught multiple times).

While MLB is more heavily scrutinized when it comes to PEDs, it would come as no surprise if it was far more prevalent in the NFL. NFL players arguably have far more to benefit from the use of PEDs, and the punishments when caught for PED use are nowhere near as stringent.

For a league supposedly trying to focus on player safety, it seems odd that they’re dragging their feet when it comes to cracking down on the types of substances that help players get bigger, stronger and faster — those potential benefits raise the possibility of other players getting injured. From Adrian Peterson to Tony Gonzalez, a number of high-profile players have already spoken on record about their support for proper HGH testing in the NFL. Congress even stepped in late last year to pressure the NFL and NFLPA to finally come to terms, so it’s clear that the delays have gone on for far too long.

Creating a tier system is a legitimate possibility, but stronger punishments that result in a permanent ban from the sport wouldn’t even be on the table until negotiations for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. The chances of the NFLPA agreeing to such drastic measures when that time comes probably aren't all that great (even though they’re already in place with MLB and the NHL), but sometimes drastic measures are needed to make the sweeping changes needed to clean up the sport.

For now, nailing down proper blood-testing procedures for HGH is priority No. 1. After that, we’ll have to settle for whatever incremental changes come about as the league continues to work toward a cleaner future for the NFL.

But what will it take for the NFL to really ramp up their efforts and make a push toward clamping down on PEDs? Do they need to undergo something akin to MLB’s Biogenesis scandal before they wake up and realize they have a problem on their hands? For an organization facing an image problem after an offseason marred by arrests and highlighted by Aaron Hernandez’s murder charge, can they even afford something like that?

Instead of waiting to find out first hand, they should take preemptive action and strike first.