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.