Why the NFL Drug Policy Makes Sense
The National Football League is a very flawed organization with tons of issues that need improving. In just the past year, we've seen flip-flopping and shady discipline issues with several high-profile athletes. We also have continuous mishandling of players' health, with the league sweeping under the rug of acts related to concussions, pain killers, and other player health issues.
It is probably fair to say that the NFL gets it wrong more than it gets it right. However, when thinking about the NFL drug policy, if you take a step back, you'll see that the NFL has it right.
Within the past week, big name players such as San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, New York Jets defensive end Sheldon Richards, and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain have been suspended for breaking league policies.
Gates was suspended four games for testing positive for a banned substance under the NFL's performance enhancing drug policy. Richardson and McClain were suspended four for games as well, but their discipline fell under the substance abuse policy.
The similar length of suspensions as well as the similar period of time has created a false equivalency among the public. Many people have taken to comment boards and written about how it is absurd that an offense such as smoking weed (now legal in 23 states medically and in five recreationally) and taking PEDs garner the same penalty from the league.
Many will say that weed is no more harmful than alcohol and that the nation is becoming more accepting of marijuana use. Both of those statements are arguably correct. Scientific studies comparing the effects of alcohol and marijuana have been conducted and for the first time ever, a majority of persons (53%) believe that marijuana should be legalized.
And while both of those statements may be correct, they aren't what matter when you consider the position that the NFL is in as a business. The NFL needs to do what is good for their brand and good for their wallets.
Let's start with the idea that marijuana legalization is becoming more widely accepted. Although 53% of people are on board, that number still means that 47% of people aren't. And even some of the people that think that, logically, marijuana should be legalized, do not condone the use of it. I am one of those very people.
When you're running a business such as the NFL, you want to be sure not to alienate your customers. It is unlikely that people will stop watching the NFL because players aren't allowed to smoke marijuana. However, it is likely that people will stop watching if they view the players who partake in such actions as thugs. Even though that perception is completely inaccurate and for their age group and gender, NFL players actually commit less crimes than the general public, this is still the image that surrounds some NFL players. A league full of savvy businessmen like the NFL knows that players using marijuana may reinforce that stereotype.
One suggestion I've heard is to let teams handle penatlies on a team by team basis. But that would just lead not no one enforcing it as it would put them at a competitive disadvantage against more relaxed teams in the case of free agency. The NFLPA would also likely take issue with the unequal treatment of players.
When you also consider the fact that the NFL is an employer and many, many, many other employers also drug test and punish employees for partaking, it makes a lot of sense as to why a business that is heavily exposed to the public would want to discourage this behavior.
Now your response to all of this might be, "well, that may all very well be true, but cheating is much worse. It ruins the integrity of the game and the punishment should be more severe than the use of marijuana."
However, when you think about it, heavily punishing cheating athletes is bad for the on-the-field product. The NFL wants bigger, faster, and stronger players who can recover quickly from suspension. And, even if they catch a guy cheating, the league would want to get him back on the field as soon as possible because, at the end of the day, people pay to see him play. There is public pressure to condemn bad behavior or at least make it seem like you are deterring bad behavior, but there is less incentive to give guys very lengthy suspensions if the league can lose money from suspending their stars.
Finally, some say that the MLB comes down much harder on PEDs and their fans don't seem to care. This is true, and in fact, their fans want to see the cheaters punished. But this took a while. The MLB brand has been associated with steroids and cheating for the past several decades and only now are they addressing the problem. It has forced them to take a hard stance against the behavior.
As of now, you can argue that it is counter-intuitive for the NFL to take aggressive action against PED users, if there isnt more outcry from fans about the offenders. It may not be fair, but the NFL is a business, and as of now, they are doing the right thing with respect to the substance abuse and banned substance policies.