When it comes to steroid use in major sports leagues, the one you hear most about is baseball. As everyone knows about the ‘Steroid Era’ in the MLB, and that it has an aggressive policy against the use of anabolic steroids, that punishes players who have tested positive by not only suspending them, but by also notarizing this on any accomplishments and records with asterisks. When it comes to steroids and the NFL, it’s a little more hush-hush, which is strange considering the NFL was the first major sports league to create a steroid policy back in 1987.
Early Uses of Steroids in the NFL
Steroid use in the NFL can actually be traced back to the late 1960s when Lyle Alzado, defensive lineman for the Denver Broncos, admitted to using anabolic steroids and then discussed his use and his fatal brain tumor in a Sports Illustrated issue. Alzado died in 1992 at the age of 43 from brain cancer.
But that’s not the only time the NFL has talked openly about anabolic steroid use. In 2005, coach Jim Haslett said that most football players in the 1980s had used a performance-enhancing steroid. Offensive lineman Steve Courson also admitted to using steroids in the 1970s. Both Courson and Alzado claimed that their failing health conditions—Courson’s heart condition and Alzado’s brain tumor—on their respective uses of the performance-enhancing drugs.
NFL Drug Policy
In 1987, the NFL decided to institute a drug policy. With the policy, certain drugs are banned from use in the NFL, and random year-round drug tests will be administered to both players and coaches. Any player or coach who tests positive will be suspended.
During the 1990s, pressure from the US government changed the drug policy. Players who tested positive during pre-season or during the off-season were suspended for 30 days for a first time offense. If a player was caught again, they were suspended for one year. Later in the 90s, Gene Upshaw, NFL director, sent a letter that said anyone testing positive for these drugs would have a four-game suspension without pay.
The BALCO Scandal
In 2003, the use of steroids in the NFL became a hot topic due to the BALCO Scandal. Sprint coach Trevor Graham had given a tip to the US Anti-Doping Agency that steroid use was extremely prevalent among NFL players, which resulted in a US federal government investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) for supplying anabolic steroids to the NFL. Graham delivered a syringe containing a steroid known as “The Clear”, which was an anabolic steroid that wouldn’t show up on NFL drug tests, allowing players to use the drug without risk of being caught. Shortly after, a testing process was developed that could detect “The Clear”, now known as THG, in urine samples. Due to the BALCO Scandal, many Oakland Raiders players tested positive for THG.
In 2005,Shawne Merriman, linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and was a starting player in the 2005 Pro Bowl. In 2006, he failed a drug test. Not only was he suspended for four games, but this incident also created a change in the drug policy in which a player who fails a drug test will no longer be eligible to play in a Pro Bowl during the same year. While this law is commonly referred to as Merriman Rule, it’s not the official name.
The Future of the NFL Drug Policy
Right now, the NFL drug policy still stands as it did back in the 1990s, but you hardly hear about failed drug tests and suspensions in the NFL as you do in baseball. From the inception of the drug policy through 2005, 111 NFL players have failed drug tests, yet only 54 of them were ever suspended. Nobody knows why, but it likely has something to do with why the mainstream media and everyday fans don’t hear about steroids in the NFL.