Why the NFL’s Drug Policies Are One Big Fumble - Pacific Standard

Why the NFL’s Drug Policies Are One Big Fumble

Enforcing blanket abstinence for some alcohol offenders and harshly penalizing marijuana use are hardly 21st-century solutions.
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Matt Prater. (Photo: lev radin/Shutterstock)

Matt Prater. (Photo: lev radin/Shutterstock)

At $705,000, they may go down as the most expensive after-work beers in history: Matt Prater, the kicker for the Denver Broncos, was suspended for the first four games of the 16-game season without pay, which will cost him that sum. He “earned” this punishment by having a few beers on vacation, shortly after the end of the 2013-14 season. The problem with that? Prater is in the NFL’s Substance Abuse Program.

He joined the program after picking up a DUI in August 2011. It was a way to avoid suspensions and fines from the league. Many people get into employee assistance programs for similar reasons. But I don’t know how many EAPs stipulate a clause like this: “A player in Stage Three will remain in Stage Three for the rest of his NFL career.” (My emphasis.)

Stage Three is the most intense level of the NFL’s program, providing for unannounced testing for alcohol and many other drugs “up to 10 times during any calendar month.” And any player who tests positive or fails to comply with any other aspect of the treatment program “will be banished from the NFL for a minimum period of one calendar year.”

Both participants in Super Bowl XLVIII last February (Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks) are based in states that have legalized marijuana. Yet players there and throughout the NFL continue to be subject to policies that belong in an earlier era.

Given that Prater’s recent suspension was initially going to be for a whole year, the 30-year-old is probably in Stage Three and therefore subject to this level of abstinence-enforcing scrutiny until he retires.

Of course, nobody is suggesting that driving under the influence is OK. But few people would argue that DUI offenses always indicate a chronic alcohol problem. (And in any case, whether or not a drinking problem is best helped by an abstinence-based approach is a raging controversy.)

Prater’s father agrees—acknowledging that his son made a mistake while insisting that he does not have a drinking problem. Yet the NFL’s policy fixates on abstinence. Prater had a drink without causing any trouble, certainly without getting behind the wheel. But any drinking on his part has now become criminalized.

This approach is all too familiar in the U.S., with drug courts—supposedly a more enlightened way of addressing drug-related offenses—punishing people who fail to remain entirely abstinent, regardless of whether their drug use currently causes problems. But the NFL does have multiple other options, such as brief interventions and harm reduction. (In fact, perhaps without even knowing it, they’ve already put one harm reduction approach in place—even if it is just partnering with Uber to help players avoid DUIs.)

There are plenty of other victims of the NFL’s drug policies. Josh Gordon, a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns, received a full-year suspension for testing positive for marijuana following previous violations, for example. Meanwhile Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe must miss one game after cops pulled him over and allegedly found pot in his possession—even though his marijuana charge was later dismissed.

Both participants in Super Bowl XLVIII last February (Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks) are based in states that have legalized marijuana. Yet players there and throughout the NFL continue to be subject to policies that belong in an earlier era. The reality of the decriminalization, legalization, and medical use of marijuana across the U.S.—alongside our growing acceptance of the racism that lies behind drug prohibition—makes such penalties seem absurd, as well as wrong.

As a new season begins, it would be wonderful if the NFL re-examined its rules in the light of the available evidence. As America’s biggest sport and a cultural touchstone, the league could do more to move U.S. drug policy forward, reducing stigma and promoting rational approaches, than any single researcher, writer, or practitioner. But, given its record, we shouldn’t hold our breath.

This post originally appeared on Substance, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Why the NFL’s Drug Policies Are One Big Fumble.”

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