PED suspensions newest battle NFL will face

This NFL season might become known as the year of the suspension.

The league is on pace to doll out more suspensions than ever before, and has already handed out more games than six of the last 10 seasons.

What’s more, week 3 of the preseason hasn’t even held a game yet, and we’re still more than two calendar weeks from opening day.

The commissioner’s office and that of executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, who is the primary man in charge of player discipline, is currently at 127 total games.

That’s with 30 players total, and includes more than $15 million in fines.

2014 was an impressive year for player discipline, with 49 players being held out of 215 cumulative games and docked over $23 million.

That was a record, and included names like Trent Richardson, Dion Jordan and Aldon Smith.

Wide Receiver Lavon Brazill and linebacker Daryl Washington were hit for 16 games apiece, while Browns wideout Josh Gordon joined defensive tackle Josh Brent and defensive end Frank Alexander for 10 games each.

That makes up a rough quarter of the suspensions that helped set the record for total games, though the 2015 season is already close to eclipsing the total number of players.

The 30 players already dealt suspension is more than any league year from 2011 and before, the 2011 collective bargaining agreement giving the NFL more leeway to punish players for different offenses.

The particular article in the agreement was a big element in the way the players union, the NFLPA, and the league, which threatened a lockout season a few years back.

Now, since 2012, no fewer than 43 players have been suspended in a season, and no fewer than 167 games have been used as reprisal.

Both lows came in 2013, and three players, cornerback Brandon Browner (16 games), receiver Justin Blackmon (8 games) and defensive end DeQuin Evans (8 games), made up more than half of the total games.

This year, though, is on pace to crush that number.

Not including the four game suspension dealt to Tom Brady, and the four games for domestic violence on the behalf of defensive end Greg Hardy — which included a conviction for one of the most heinous acts a football players has been charged with and began as a 10 game suspension, ¬†the majority of punishments have to do with banned substances.

Pittsburgh receiver Martavis Bryant was the latest to meet the wrong side of banned substances, being suspended four games, which indicates that he already tested positive for something he shouldn’t have.

And the NFLPA, which receives dues just like any other union, has added $8-$10 million to their list of expenditures if you believe Vincent, who charged the union with recklessness and carelessness earlier in the year.

What’s the cause for such a high number of suspensions?

The exact result of tests are difficult to come by, and fall under the same confidentiality laws than any medical issue does, but some changes have been made since the start of last season.

One is the testing for human growth hormone, commonly known as HGH, a powerful steroid that has been popular in the league for years but that wasn’t tested for until late into the 2014 season.

Coupled with the sudden rise in performance enhancing drug suspensions, HGH is an all too logical explanation of why the steep increase is occurring.

Confirming it, though, is not likely. Teams can’t say, and agents don’t want to. It hurts their clients bottom line too much, and so they advise against any comment.

Until something gives, it’s still a guessing game. But there’s still a possibility the NFL finds a way to release the number of players who failed tests for HGH, especially since they’re going to want to tout their good deeds.

What the nature of the substance is, doesn’t matter as much the total number of suspensions being handed down, though, and the reason is simple.

Even if the NFL is trying to do the right thing, they’re also showing that the major problems don’t stop with concussions or domestic abuse. If those two weren’t already enough, the league is showing that there is a record number of cheaters on the loose.

Or, worse than that, the league hasn’t done enough to catch the cheats until now — while Brady is shown trying to defend himself in a case that, in public opinion, he lost before it even started.

And in reality, one that he doesn’t seem likely to win regardless of how circumstantial certain pieces of evidence may be.

The bottom line is still simple, though, the NFL has a more serious problem on its hands than they may have realized. Their best players, the one’s children and adults idolize just the same, are beginning to be exposed as cheaters.

Even with the absence of a direct link between HGH and the failed tests, the simple math adds up. And like Brady, the court of public opinion is what matters most to the league.


Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.