The National Football League (NFL) has been unable to escape controversy over recent years. Although it gets less attention, one of the league’s most prevalent issues is substance abuse. Players use steroids and painkillers to improve their performance, and recreational drugs to unwind from the stress of football. The NFL semi-regularly updates its rules to try and address the ever-increasing substance abuse problem, but it’s hard to tell how successful they are. Since the redesigned NFL drug legislation’s implementation in 2004, there has been an upward trend in drug fines and suspensions, but it’s unclear if the NFL is more effectively restricting drug use or if a larger volume of players are using drugs. If the issue is really growing at the rate it seem to be, the NFL has a serious problem.
The difficulty in trying to control drugs in professional sports is that the athletes can circumvent the test. Many athletes have admitted to cheating the tests which require constant redesign due to the perpetual emergence of new drugs. It’s extremely difficult to keep track of all the new painkillers and steroids, and often players start using them long before the NFL becomes aware of their existence. The tests are flawed in method, but they also can’t hope to keep up to date with the ever-expanding drug market. A significant portion of the drug suspensions since 2002 have been for “unknown substances.” It has also become much more difficult to regulate in recent years due to the rise in painkiller prescription. Many of the most worrying drugs are prescribed to players to accommodate the physical damage of football and it’s completely allowed. As the sports drug market constantly expands, it’s hard enough to stay ahead of it, let alone regulate it.
Another side of drugs in football is the recreational aspect. Many players rely on recreational drugs and alcohol to relax. Drug tests primarily target performance enhancing drugs, and the testing for recreational drugs is essentially liability insurance for the NFL so that they aren’t in contradiction with federal law. In the NFL, it takes six Marijuana violations to get a year suspension, and even if you have four offenses, you only face a four-game suspension. With such relaxed rules NFL players are notorious for their party-heavy lifestyles; a great example is Johnny Manziel, a notorious partier who was hospitalized last May after a reaction to an increase in Lithium prescription.
Manziel’s football career was ended by his drug use, and similar stories are reflected throughout the league. We could see a big change in coming years with the cries for legalization of Marijuana and heavier regulation on painkiller prescription. Though the answer remains unclear, the NFL’s issues are evident.