Anti-drugs laws put NFL back in spotlight

Steve Brenner 10:55 22/12/2014
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While the dark cloud of performance enhancing drug abuse once again casts a depressingly predictable shadow over athletics following accusations of abuse in Russia, there has been something else rumbling along with less noise in the US yet with no less controversy.

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Following President Barack Obama’s decision last week to end a Federal government ban on the use of medical marijuana, American football’s new drug policy has once again been analysed with a large dollop of cynicism and insecurity.

In such a heavy contact, physical sport it would only seem natural for steroids and human growth hormones (HGH) to be prevalent.

The NFL’s stance on those blights of sporting excellence remain in line with the Olympics although it’s approach is nowhere near as stringent.

They are banned. Yet there are no random tests. You cannot be caught red-handed. Testers will be at practice but not unannounced.

The new programme stipulates urine samples can be taken any day. Yet there are no reports of any testing on game day – arguably the best chance to see if anyone is using steroids or amphetamines to boost up performance and intensity ahead of a crunch encounter.

Even if the men wearing white coats do come calling , don’t worry: Just say you have ADD  – attention deficit disorder – and you can opt out.

In the NFL there is a sufficient nod and a wink back to the dark ages. They have three hours before being forced to submit a sample. Shamed cyclist Lance Armstrong, armed with all manner of masking agents, was able to kid people within 15 minutes.

Yet, intriguingly, the relaxation of the NFL’s policy on marijuana use earlier this year has been eased with no fanfare and delight by the large swathes of players who use the drug to combat the searing physical and mental problems caused by one of the most aggressive sports on earth.

In the past, people found to have it in their system faced bans of up to a season. That can wreck a career. Yet, as we have seen recently, the suits who run the NFL are sometimes found wandering dark alleys of social consequence with no idea where they will end up.  

Bear in mind that Josh Gordon from the Cleveland Browns failed multiple pot tests and was suspended for a year. Ray Rice, who physically assaulted his then fiancee in an elevator, was canned for just two games.

Now however, in line with the United States’ ever-relaxing approach to pot use – medical usage is now allowed in 23 states and counting –  players are now allowed to have twice the amount of the drug in their system before being dealt with.

It is still listed as a substance of abuse  – the difference now being only a higher number of failed tests , including a threshold which has been doubled – will land you in trouble.

The previous limit, say the NFL, did not take into the account of someone potentially being found positive thanks to the inhalation of second hand smoke. Fast forward to today and smoke before a game: You’ll be fine. Indeed, providing an NFL star tests negative at the start of the season, it’s a clean slate and no worries moving forward.

There were cases recently when athletes were found to be doping thanks to blood and urine samples which had been frozen up to eight years previously. The NFL destroys anything older than 90 days.

The debate continues to rage in American society about whether marijuana, and not synthetic pain relief like Vicodin, are more beneficial both physically and mentally to a player attempting to overcome the kind of debilitating and serious injuries which have left many severely damaged for life.

Widescale testing is expensive though for a billion dollar enterprise like the NFL, it’s possible. 

The salient point in all of this is what exactly does Commissioner Roger Goodell care about the most – the player or the brand? Sadly, I think we all know the answer.

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