NFL makes mistake by following crowd on drug testing


NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director Demaurice Smith talk before signing the NFL's new 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement. (Jason Miller/GETTY IMAGES)
Sally Jenkins
Columnist August 5, 2011

If the NFL and its players really want to be out front on the doping issue, they should just say no to drug testing in its current form. Instead of this pose of public appeasement, they should stand up to the anti-doping mob and declare: “Drug testing in sports is of dubious moral and practical value, and also, it’s prone to error. A guilt-first premise is inconsistent with our values, and we refuse to be criminalized. Furthermore, personal health is a private issue, and the seizing of our blood and urine for the sake of public spin is an intolerable invasion.”

Now that would be a stand worth taking.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Commissioner Roger Goodell, eager to sell the public on the NFL’s “integrity,” wants players to be the poster boys for a new blood test, even though scientists are divided over its reliability. As Chuck Yesalis of Penn State says, chillingly, “I wouldn’t want to have my livelihood depend on it, from what I know.”

The players, suffering from a sudden collapse of backbone and sense, are going along anyway, and have agreed to implement it by the season opener. They allowed themselves to be coerced. Guess what? It probably won’t be the last time.

Throughout the four-month lockout, players fought for their wallets, and their rights, only to cave because they are afraid of criticism if they buck the World Anti-Doping Agency. But the fact is, as Jake Scott of the Tennessee Titans points out, the WADA style of drug enforcement has some critical failings: The testing companies have no incentive to admit a mistake; confidentiality is breached all the time; and they are paid to find positive results.

“Their motives are questionable,” Scott pointed out to the Tennessean. “Their incentive is to catch people. If they don’t catch anybody, nobody thinks their test works.”

The league hopes to start testing in the first week of the regular season, pending agreement with the players on procedures. But the players should refuse to consent to the new test. Instead they should sit down with Goodell and negotiate a whole new antidrug policy — a better one. Here is what they should say:

“We believe you are a strong, forward-looking commissioner — despite our resentment of your personal conduct policies — so why not really get out in front on this issue, and work with us to create a genuinely innovative program? Let’s redesign. We will consent to random testing only if it’s confidential and without penalty, and used purely as a source of information. Let’s find out what players are abusing — when, and how, and why. Then, let’s consult the best antidrug experts — people who have had some success — and come up with a plan that will actually have real-world results, a sports version of the anti-smoking campaign, the kind of thing that will produce a change in the very soul of the athlete.”

Even the most ardent defenders of drug testing admit its main function is as a deterrent, but we have to confront the fact that the system isn’t deterring anyone. At best it’s not effective in catching cheaters, and at worst it stigmatizes the innocent.

Drug testing was supposed to give us certainty and a clear process, but in more than a decade of existence, all that WADA, with its emphasis on punishment, has given us is ambiguous cases such as Alberto Contador’s and/or sloppy lab work such as Diana Taurasi’s false positive.

Why is the NFL lining up with the WADA on such a failed policy, especially when the league has little in common with other international sports? Football is not swimming.

Drug testing makes sense in certain safety-sensitive professions, such as air-traffic controllers, truck drivers and the military. But if the NFL is so concerned about player health, how does it rationalize a game so ruinous to players’ bodies?

If the aim is to stop “performance enhancement” and level the playing field, exactly how do you classify “performance enhancement” in football? Is one-size-fits-all testing really a good idea in a sport with such a range of athletes? A substance that might be enhancing for one guy might not be enhancing at all for a guy who plays a different position.

Before NFL players agree to any sort of policy, they should insist on seeing a raft of independent research that lays out the costs and benefits for them of using various substances.

We know abusing steroids without a doctor’s supervision can create health risks. But HGH appears to have some usefulness in healing sports injuries, and in putting on lean muscle mass to protect from potential harm, as well as recovering from extreme duress, the millions of blows and microtears pro athletes absorb daily with their extreme ranges of motion. If it has therapeutic benefits, players may not want to deny themselves the right to use it.

Mainly, any new testing program ought to be based in the understanding that no laboratory process is free from error. WADA-style drug testing in sports has been a huge moral failure because it has emphasized punishment while refusing to recognize the cost to athletes in suspicion, loss of privacy, and violations of their rights. False positives can result from swallowing all kinds of benign things: Prescription antibiotics might trigger a false positive for cocaine; over-the-counter cold medicines can mime methamphetamine.

Corporations and schools are learning that alternative methods might be as effective in discerning and dissuading substance abusers, without the resentment and invasion that come with drug testing. An Oklahoma study found that a questionnaire accurately detected 94 out of 100 drug users.

Now, that’s really interesting, because the biggest problem plaguing anti-doping efforts is that we don’t know what athletes are using, or why. They are always way ahead of the tests. What’s really needed — far more than an untried new blood test — is a candid exchange of information.

The NFL players should construct a program that will lead instead of follow. It should shift the anti-doping effort to a more positive track. What’s needed is a policy aimed at protecting health and privacy, preventing abuse, and fostering personal resistance — rather than just punishment, and publicity value.

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