The New England Patriots pulled off a comeback rivaling Cheick Kongo vs. Pat Barry at Super Bowl LI on Sunday. The next day CNN published an unusually in-depth piece by Roni Selig and Dr. Sanjay Gupta on what the NFL can learn from the UFC about anti-doping testing.
The penalty for a first-time offense in the UFC, like WADA and USADA, is a two-year suspension. The case is given a full and fair review; very often the punishment is less than two years. However, the punishment for a test failure in the NFL is four games.
The league and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) worked out the punishment and remarkably less stringent testing. For example, the NFL uses an isoform test to detect Human Growth Hormose, which has a detection window of 24 to 48 hours. The UFC uses a more precise bio-marker test, which has a detection window of several weeks after usage. And USADA maintains test results for ten years, so that samples can be retested if more precise methods are devised. NFL samples are destroyed after 90 days.
The window for testing is also radically different. Like Olympic athletes, UFC fighters can be asked to take a test at any time or place, and have to keep the league informed of their whereabouts via an app. A strict process is in place in the case of lapses; no UFC fighter has failed. And the doping control officer (DCO) stays with the athlete until the sample has been provided, including going into the bathroom.
In the NFL 10 players from the 53 team members are selected at random each week during the September to February season. Blood specimens cannot be collected on game days, and there is a maximum of six blood tests per year. Players have up to three hours to deliver a specimen if at a training facility or stadium. For specimens collected elsewhere, like home, it is 24 hours. In the NFL there is no DCO watching from the time of the notification.
“To suggest that we need to add additional layers of voyeurism to what is already an invasive testing protocol is not necessarily going to make it more effective,” said NFLPA director of external affairs George Atallah.
The difference between the UFC and the NFL anti-doping measures amounts to “small loopholes that you can drive a semi-tractor through,” said UFC drug czar Jeff Novitzky.
“There should never be any limitations, in my experience. When ten players have been tested from the team they know nobody else is going to be tested that week. So that’s an issue.”
“My experience in this world has shown me if you give athletes even a matter of hours of preparing for a test, there [are] things that can be done to manipulate their body to pass a test.”
“The amount of blood required for a test is miniscule, it’s literally two tablespoons, which science has shown will be regenerated by the body in a matter of hours. Because of that there’s no restrictions on the UFC athlete about when blood can be taken.”
Former NFL players have said PED use in the league rampant. Atallah wouldn’t say.
“I don’t know the answer,” he said. “Only the players in the locker room know.”
NFL test failures are not released publicly, but media reports found 19 player suspensions this season, out of 1,600 players, or about 1%. Atallah was asked if the NFL was doing everything they could to catch dopers. He replied that the NFLPA is “proud of [its] drug policies.”
Novitzky says professional athletes make a rational calculation about risk and reward.
“There is clearly a reward for a professional athlete to use these drugs,” he said. “They make already gifted and great athletes even better. They make them bigger, faster, stronger, and increase endurance. When you couple that with financial incentives in professional sports today, an already great athlete using performance enhancing drugs can be even greater and make even more money than they make.
“On the risk side, most of them are looking at how likely is it that I would get caught. How comprehensive is the anti-doping program in my sport, and what kind of sanction would I be facing if I was caught? If the sanction is small and it’s a matter of weeks or months and financially is not too severe, what athletes have told me is that it’s worth the risk.”
Atallah disagrees, “completely.”
“If you get suspended for a performance-enhancing drug, the penalty is four games,” he said. “In that four games somebody else is fighting to take your job.”
“So I disagree with the premise that there’s no risk, or that the reward is greater than the risk for a professional football player to cheat. You’re cutting a significant percentage of your career and potentially life earnings if you get caught doping in the NFL. That’s not a small risk.”
“It’s odd to me that the anti-doping community is so fixated on labeling athletes and treating athletes as if it’s a forgone conclusion that they are going to cheat.”
“The real issue is what you are doing [in the] anti-doping community to provide athletes with a fair due process, a recourse, or a system that gives the athletes the rights to challenge any nefarious positive test.”
If that is the real question, this is the real answer.
The real issue is why does the NFL have an anti-doping program that you drive a semi-tractor through?