BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL
jonathan wiggs/globe staff
The news of Julian Edelman facing a four-game suspension for a performance-enhancing drug came out of nowhere last week, and has produced several follow-up questions and plenty of confusion.
Fortunately, the NFL’s 44-page “Policy on Performance Enhancing Substances” is available to the public, and pretty clearly spells out the entire process.
However, there is also a strict confidentiality agreement in place, and a $500,000 fine for anyone who breaks it. The NFL office also purposely keeps itself in the dark; it does not know when Edelman tested positive, what type of test he took, or what he tested positive for. The league simply refers you to the media policy to answer any questions (the NFL Players Association did not respond to a request).
Let’s take a simplified look at the process by which players are tested and punished for PEDs, and try to answer any lingering questions about Edelman’s predicament. (Note: The NFL has a completely different policy for substances of abuse.)
Wait, you’re telling me the NFL knows nothing about the drug testing?
That’s what the policy states. It was created jointly by the NFL Management Council and the NFLPA, and calls for the two bodies to equally share all costs associated with the program, to jointly appoint all of the key figures, but to jointly stay out of the way.
The guy who runs the program is Dr. John Lombardo, known as the independent administrator. He runs the computer program that randomly selects players to be tested. He also talks to each player who tests positive and has the authority to determine how many tests a player can take in a year (up to 24).
The PED program also has a chief forensic toxicologist, jointly appointed, who confirms all testing results. The appeals officers are also jointly appointed.
Meanwhile, the NFL and NFLPA are purposely kept in the dark about which players are tested, who fails a test, and so on, until a punishment is levied.
OK, so what did Edelman test positive for?
We don’t know. The NFL will never announce it, and the confidentiality agreement prevents anyone from saying anything about it (in theory).
However, it was reported that Edelman is in line for a four-game suspension, which per the policy means he had a first positive for a stimulant or anabolic agent. A second positive results in a 10-game suspension, and a third positive in a two-year “banishment.”
How did he test positive for a “substance that wasn’t immediately recognizable”?
That’s according to The MMQB, which reported that scientists are trying to figure out exactly what Edelman tested positive for.
The policy does account for some of the unknown. A test can be considered positive if a player’s ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone is greater than 4-1. A test can also be positive if a player’s epitestosterone level exceeds 200 ng/ml.
So perhaps whatever Edelman took, it raised his testosterone levels to prohibited amounts.
How often are these guys tested?
For substances of abuse, NFL players are tested just once per year, between April and August (assuming they aren’t in the drug program). But the PED policy is much stricter.
Every invitee to the NFL scouting combine is tested. And every player in the league submits to an annual test as part of his preseason physical at the start of camp.
After that, 10 players per team are randomly chosen by Lombardo’s computer each week to be tested throughout the preseason, regular season, and as long as the team is alive in the postseason.
When selected, a player has three hours to produce a specimen, and cannot leave the premises until he does so.
In 2014, the NFL included blood testing for human growth hormone in the policy, with its own set of rules. During the preseason physicals, 20 percent of players are randomly chosen for blood testing in addition to urine. During the regular season, five players from eight teams are randomly chosen for blood and urine testing each week.
What about in the offseason?
Players have to provide their whereabouts throughout the offseason, though the NFL isn’t usually tracking them down to Costa Rica for urine tests.
But players can be randomly selected by computer up to six times for testing in the offseason (urine and/or blood), and have 24 hours to give a specimen at a site within 45 miles of his location. Missing a test usually counts as a failed test.
And 10 percent of the players chosen for offseason testing will be randomly selected for blood testing.
Of course, players often complain that the testing isn’t so random. James Harrison said he was tested for PEDs three times last offseason.
“I just wish I had that much luck with the lottery,” he said.
So when did Edelman fail his test?
Again, the NFL won’t say. But we can piece together the timeline a bit.
Edelman said the issue is still under appeal. The policy states that a player has five days after receiving notice of his discipline to file an appeal. And that appeal will take place on the fourth Tuesday following the issuance of discipline.
The player has the ability to reschedule his hearing outside that window, but it appears that Edelman’s test occurred within the last two months, likely after the Patriots returned to Gillette Stadium April 16 for offseason workouts.
Can Edelman win his appeal?
It’s possible. Richard Sherman had a four-game PED suspension overturned in 2012 when he was with the Seahawks because of collection and chain-of-custody issues.
It’s also possible that, since the process is confidential, untold players have been suspended but won their appeal. But while the NFL couldn’t comment on the frequency of PED suspensions that are overturned, Sherman appears to be the rare successful case.
How did we hear about this?
Great question. The $500,000 fine shows how seriously the NFL takes its confidentiality agreement. Team personnel (head coaches, general managers, etc.) aren’t supposed to know about any discipline until the suspension becomes final, or the player comes forward about it.
When New England’s Rob Ninkovich was suspended for PEDs in 2016, he said Bill Belichick had no idea.
“I got the letter in my locker, it was right after practice, and right when I read it, I was like, ‘What?’ I jumped right up and went into his office,” Ninkovich said. “He actually kind of calmed me down.
“Then I had to call the NFL and talk to John Lombardo, who does the drug testing.”
But keeping a secret isn’t easy.
“In theory, yes, the teams are kept in the dark,” a former NFL team doctor said. “But when it’s a PED especially, there are rumors in the building that happen routinely. He told a teammate, the teammate told somebody else, or the equipment guy found out and ran upstairs to tell them about it, or the strength coach overheard them talking about it.”
Many times the players themselves (or their agents) release the news, so as to control the message (the “Adderall” explanation is common).
Why did this news get reported before the appeal?
I don’t have a good answer for this question. It’s possible that Edelman and his team thought that revealing the news now, during a slow time in the calendar, would be the best way to minimize the damage and control the message. It’s also possible that someone outed him without his permission.
Does the policy encourage snitching?
You bet it does.
According to the policy: “The NFL Management Council may, prior to the conclusion of a Player’s appeal, reduce the length of the suspension and corresponding bonus forfeiture by up to 50% when the Player has provided full and complete assistance (including hearing testimony if required) to the Management Council which results in the finding of an additional violation of the Policy by another Player, coach, trainer or other person subject to this Policy.”
What is the full scope of the punishment?
It’s pretty harsh, much more than just a four-game suspension.
You lose four game checks, four weeks of roster bonuses, and have to return a portion of your signing bonus. Those are penalties that tally up to $987,745 for Edelman (subtracted from the $3 million he was supposed to make this year).
He can participate fully in training camp and preseason games, but will be banished from Gillette Stadium and can’t have any contact with anyone from the organization for four weeks as soon as the calendar flips to the regular season Sept. 1.
Edelman also cannot be selected to the Pro Bowl or win any league awards this season.
Before Edelman is reinstated from suspension, he must first test negative for all prohibited substances.
And Edelman will now be in the program for two years, subjected to additional testing at Lombardo’s discretion.
That, as they say, is one expensive drug test.
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