QUESTION: Should a player who tests positive for steroids after taking an over-the-counter dietary or nutritional supplement be subject to harsher penalties than a player who tests positive for cocaine? That's what happens in the NFL. Bears quarterback Jim Miller, who on Dec. 1 became the fourth player this season to get a four-game suspension for violating the league's steroid policy, says he overlooked a banned substance while reading the ingredients in a dietaiy supplement. Yet a player who tests positive for street drugs would have to fail a second test before getting a four-week ban. Fair?
Absolutely, says Jeff Pash, an NFL executive vice president who hears appeals in steroid cases. "No one has suggested there is a competitive-advantage aspect to street drugs," says Pash. "But there could be a competitive advantage to taking a steroid."
Wait a minute, says Miller's agent, Joe Linta. "Jim took four diet pills and got suspended four weeks," says Linta. "That's like running a stop sign and getting sent to jail."
Gene Upshaw, head of the players' association, isn't sure how to fix things. "We need to see if the policy can be flexible so the Jim Millers don't get suspended for a minor violation," he says.
That will be a tall order. Dr. Gary Wadler, an authority on steroids and co-author of Drugs and the Athlete, says it is virtually impossible to fashion a test that can distinguish between a steroid present in an over-the-counter nutritional supplement and one taken to increase muscle mass. "The relentless pursuit of bigness and thinness are both a part of a spectrum of disorders," Wadler says. "I think it's very fair to treat them the same."
One example of the complexity of the issue is a compromise the NFL made last week. Last July a player brought a dietary supplement to his team's trainer. The trainer and the team physician approved the supplement, but then the player tested positive for a banned steroid. The league suspended the player for four weeks without pay. The player appealed. Presented with evidence of team complicity, the league dropped the suspension and cut the fine in half, according to a source familiar with the appeal.