The NFL's Antiquated Substance-Abuse Policy: A Proposition For Change

The NFL is the premiere sports league of America. The nature of the game and the impact it has on individuals and families is what makes it so unique. It’s a sport that brings people together regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity, for one day of the week (Thursday, Saturday, Sunday night as well…but the impact is not the same given it’s only one game) to enjoy a game many have grown to love. But things aren't always perfect. The NFL, like many professional sports, is in a never-ending spotlight with controversy on and off the field. 

At the end of the day, the NFL is a business. Each player in the NFL is representing that business, and thus held to a standard that he must comply with. Many players have elected to not follow these standards by violating one of the NFL’s most notorious rules: the substance-abuse policy. This type of act needs to come to a halt. The NFL needs to take a step of measured activism toward penalizing players, whether it is through harsher suspensions or a higher authority, because the current model is clearly flawed. Understanding the background of the NFL’s current policy on substance abuse is crucial to discovering the best “new” approach to take in applying punishments to players who test positive for substance abuse. 

The NFL has two separate policies for substances that can lead to suspension. One policy covers substance abuse of prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, illegal drugs, and alcohol. The agreement the players make with the NFL prohibits the use, possession, and distribution of drugs including cocaine, marijuana, opiates/opiods, MDMA, and PCP. The other policy covers performance-enhancing substances, anabolic and androgenic steroids, stimulants, human/animal growth hormones, and related substances. 

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Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

First off, it’s important to know that players are tested: before they sign with a new team (newly drafted players as well), at least once in the preseason (between April 20 and August 9), at regular pre-determined intervals (if a player is in an intervention program), and by agreement if the team or player requests it or if it’s part of his contract. The intervention program mentioned above is a three-stage process that the NFL has employed for players who have either failed a drug test or have questionable behavior.  

Stage one consists of a medical director giving a player a treatment plan at a facility that that player must comply with for 90 days. Players who are in this stage received fines by the league, but the specific reason as to why is kept confidential. If the player is completes the treatment plan and does not test positive, he is released. If not, he moves on to stage two. This lasts for two full seasons with the same steps as in stage one, except the consequences are more severe. In addition to a fine, players who violate the rules will face a four-six game suspension. 

If a player completes stage two and fails another drug test later on, that player starts over at stage one like first-time offenders. Finally, violations in stage three are the worst, with a possible year-long ban from the NFL. Players at this level will remain here for the rest of their careers, unless discharged by a medical director. If a player were to appeal a drug-related punishment, it is heard by a neutral arbitrator, not the commissioner. 

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Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The entire process is, in general, extremely lengthy. For a player that is a repeat offender, it makes perfect sense for his punishment to be prolonged. The problem is, the prolonged length of the program not only increases the number of players who enter stage one that eventually end up in stage three, but it also creates a new image of the player. This new image comes from one wrong turn that puts a stain on a player’s career. For some it’ll be a permanent stain, but for others it’ll be a removable stain. The big risk associated with this stain is that it can really go either way. 

Despite the health risks that go along with starting to play football at a young age, many kids across America love the game enough to where those risks are overlooked. The love for the game and desire to be “like those NFL players on TV” is exactly what many children look to attain. However, is the image these NFL players portray exactly what parents want their kids modeling themselves after? Many of these players make bone-headed decisions of the field that make you question their intelligence and their integrity. 

Take for example former Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon. The young wide receiver had an immense amount of potential as showcased in 2013, when he played in 14 games and tallied 1646 yards and 9 TDs. Repeated violations of the substance abuse policy have now put the 24-year-old out of the league. Those young high school players who watched Gordon in the Cleveland area and adored the way he played are all witnesses to the failure he has become in the eyes of many. What kind of an image does that give off? Clearly not the right one. 

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Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

That this is happening all around the league is simply disheartening. The fact that players can’t pass a drug test that happens once a year, which they know the date of is a shame. Add to that the point that even if a player tests positive for one, there won’t be any serious punishments unless he tests positive two more times. Yet players like Josh Gordon are still violating the policy? It doesn’t make sense and it almost makes you question whether these NFL players are receiving the right type of education. 

That’s a topic for another story, but the bottom line is that these players are not being handled correctly. Yes, they’re grown men. Yes, not all NFL players need “special assistance.” But at the same time, not every NFL player is living peacefully off the field. 

That is why the NFL needs to experiment with new techniques and expand to unfamiliar territory; the league itself and the treatment programs are evidently not working well enough.  

The biggest issue with the NFL's substance-abuse policy, above all, is the period of time it has existed. Dating back to 1971, Commissioner Rozelle issued the league’s first loosely designed drug policy. That policy was created to educate players about the dangers of substance abuse, but soon in 1973 grew to adding new elements including a discipline provision. Things changed in 1982 when the NFLPA and NFLMC agreed to a Collective Bargaining Agreement, which included a new collectively bargained substance abuse policy. This policy included the provisions we still see in the NFL today including pre-season urinalysis and blood testing, continuing drug dependency education efforts, reasonable cause testing for suspected players, and strict rules for confidentiality of results. 

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Rozelle (right) Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Finally in 1983, the NFL began to suspend players for violating either of the two separate substance policies. In that season, five players were suspended. From 1984 to 1987, only three more players were suspended. Rozelle would not back down, as in 1986 he announced a substance abuse policy which would require two unscheduled urinalyses during the regular season for every NFL player. In a worst-case scenario a player could be banned permanently from the NFL. However, the arbitrator in this case went in favor of the NFLPA and against the commissioner. 

The NFL and NFLPA finally came in agreement in 1987 under a policy that was then updated annually after being implemented. This policy follows the same rule-set as I detailed earlier, with only some minor tweaks. 

The results and data that have been accumulated on the number of players suspended due to violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy from the implementation of this 1987 policy will only further the point that the league has to update its approach to punishing players. In the 1988 season, 19 players were suspended 4 games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. The following season, 21 players were suspended. 37 players were suspended from 1990-2000, making that time period the brightest spot of the NFL’s attempt at diminishing the problem of substance abuse. From the 2001 to 2002 seasons only 19 players were suspended, but this up and down trend wasn’t exactly encouraging for the league. 

A cause for concern among all in the NFL should be the last 5 years. In 2011 alone, 20 players were suspended, which was the most for one season dating back to 1989. Things only got worse from there. From February 2012 to December 2012, 40 players received suspensions. Then in February 2013 to December 2013 37 players were suspended. Next, in February 2014 to December 2014 an NFL-season high 41 players violated one of the two policies. The current NFL season is on pace to have the most suspensions ever for players violating the substance policies, as from February 3 to August 28 there have been 35 suspensions. 

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Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

That is why now is the time. It’s out with the old and in with the new. 

One option that the NFL could consider involves getting coaches and teams more involved in handling players who violate the policy. Ultimately, it isn’t the league or the people at treatment centers who really understand these players, but rather the best people to talk to are teammates and coaches. With this plan, there are many possibilities teams can choose from. 

One possibility, similar to what the Dallas Cowboys set for Dez Bryant when he first entered the league, is to or restrict players from certain activities and set curfews. As childish as it sounds, it worked extremely well for Bryant and the Cowboys, keeping the troubled wide receiver out of the public eye. Whether it’s the respective NFL team assigning a personal guard with the player at all times, or simply setting curfews for the troubled player, this could be a more convenient first step for the league and its players. 

Another possibility is to have a teammate, who has not previously been involved with substance abuse, serve as a mentor to those who are troubled. He could advise that player about what he does to avoid certain substances, and stay by his side as a guide of some sort. This player can then earn a roster bonus (salary bonus), similar to a bonus given to a player that performs outstandingly on the field. 

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Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

A last resort could be getting the coaching staff involved. Whether it’s forcing players to run more wind sprints because of one player’s actions, or having the coach mentor (as opposed to a player mentor) the troubled player, there are many disciplinary actions a coach can think of to set on that player or on the whole team because of that one player’s mistake. If getting the team, coaches and players involved doesn’t work, the NFL may have to step out of the way and let outside forces take over. 

Taking the issue of the NFL substance abuse policy to a higher court or authority is another path the league can choose to explore. Not the NFLPA (National Football League Player Association) or NFLMC (National Football League Management Council), but instead an outside source that can play the same role as an arbitrator. This outside source would not be associated with the NFL directly, but would be someone who can provide the right direction and solve the issue of players violating substance-abuse policies. More importantly, taking a case-by-case approach could be applied without the use of a certain set of laws and rules that apply to every situation. 

Not every player has the same circumstances as another, so each situation should be tackled differently. It could eventually turn into a lengthy and nagging problem to an NFL player to have to deal with throughout the year, but it would also serve as a lesson to a player to not commit the same action again. 

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Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

A relevant example could be the ongoing case with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and the “Deflategate” scandal. While cheating is entirely different from players violating substance-abuse policies, both actions have the same consequence of blackening the image of the league and the player. Since, in Brady’s case, the issue has been taken to different levels of court, not only has the issue dragged along to make him not want to go through it once again, but it will likely end in punishments. 

In other words, the worse the process of taking the issue to a higher court is, the more likely a player would shy away from repeating such a crime. Either way, the NFL needs to experiment with new techniques and this could very well be one route they can take.

The process of punishment due to substance-abuse is archaic and something that may have worked back in the day, but is now a policy that is continually abused. There needs to be an act of measured activism, whether by the NFL itself or by an outside source, to bring forth the facts which prove that change should be imminent.&nbs p;

It’ll take a lot more than treatment and education about drugs, and fines and suspensions to solve the real issue here. Players need to grow from these experiences and not be allowed to continually break the rules. The fact that the number of players being suspended on a yearly basis is growing is something that should be extremely alarming to the NFL. 

Some action has to take place sooner or later. 

After all, the league and players are evolving and so should its rules. 

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