NFL May Look to Outside Agency for Steroid Testing

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

The NFL might consider giving control of its steroid-testing program to an outside agency if it determines that it cannot continue to run the program effectively in cooperation with the players' union, a top league official said Thursday. Such a move would represent a significant shift in policy for a league that has administered its testing policy in conjunction with the union for two decades.

The acknowledgement comes after court rulings have put on hold the suspensions of two Minnesota Vikings players who tested positive for a banned substance. While rejecting most of the players' claims, courts ruled two issues involving Minnesota workplace laws needed to be decided by a state court. That, in the league's view, makes players on one team subject to a different set of drug-testing rules than players on other teams, based on which state they play in.

"It doesn't serve anyone's interests to have a program like this fragmented by wide-ranging state laws," Jeff Pash, the league counsel and executive vice president of labor, said in a telephone interview from New York. "If we can't administer the program on our own, we might have to turn to an outside entity like WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency]. One thing we don't want to do is shut the program down, because it has served everyone well."

Pash also mentioned the possibility that control of the testing program potentially could be placed under the jurisdiction of a federal agency.

Defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams tested positive last year for the diuretic bumetanide, which is on the NFL's list of banned substances as a possible masking agent for steroids. The players said they ingested the substance unknowingly because it was contained in the weight loss product StarCaps, and both the players and the union took legal action contending the league knew StarCaps contained bumetanide but failed to properly warn players.

A federal appeals court recently upheld a ruling by a federal judge who rejected most of the players' claims but sent two issues involving Minnesota workplace laws back to a state court. The state court has indicated that it likely won't hold a trial before the end of the current NFL season, keeping the suspensions of the Vikings players on hold. The NFL announced this week that it would not suspend New Orleans Saints defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant for the same infraction because it would be unfair to suspend them while the two Vikings players continue playing.

The NFL has argued throughout the case that its collectively bargained testing program should take precedence.

Pash, the NFL's chief labor negotiator, said the league has "a range of further court options," and also is hopeful of meeting with union officials within the next two weeks to try to resolve the issue. However, Pash said the league's inability to administer its program with uniformity could imperil the independence of a program that generally drew praise from members of Congress in the past when former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, the late executive director of the NFL Players Association, appeared on Capitol Hill to testify about steroid-testing issues.

"We've had for the better part of two decades a collectively bargained program which I think has worked very well, and most people who have looked at it think it's worked very well," Pash said. "It has been a real credit to the NFL and the NFL players. The union's failure to support it in the StarCaps case has resulted in it being compromised. . . . Now we have players being subject to two sets of rules. Who knows, six months from now it might be 10 sets of rules."

George Atallah, the union's assistant executive director of external affairs, said by telephone Thursday: "Our intentions were not to challenge the overall system. Our intentions were to protect our players from an isolated abuse and injustice from within the system."

A source on the players' side said the union would like to reach a resolution with the league that would keep the current steroid-testing program basically intact. The union, though, also has indicated that it will seek during the current labor negotiations to establish a system by which an independent arbitrator could hear appeals of disciplinary measures taken by the league against players.

Travis Tygart, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said by telephone Thursday that the StarCaps case could have wide-ranging implications for sports leagues' drug-testing programs.

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