Now, if only we knew who tested positive for what
Wait: The NFL hasn't ever included uppers on its list of banned substances?
Well, it has and it hasn't. And scores of players might have tested positive for them, or maybe no one ever has. And the guy who was so amped his skin almost turned Greenie Green on game day might have been suspended after getting popped for amphetamines three times.
Or, in the alternative, never suspended at all. Or suspended, but for something else.
One thing's for sure: Your guess about all of it might be as good as that of the player's own GM.
Other than that? The system's perfect.
We come here not to bury the NFL. There isn't a drug-testing program on the planet that is going to (a) sift out every violation in a sport or (b) ever play anything but catch-up with the truly committed cheat -- that is, the athlete out there on the frontiers of science, trying out things drug-testing officials and league executives don't even know exist.
In a world in which it took an anonymously mailed dirty syringe to initiate the backward-to-creation lab process that eventually brought down BALCO, you have to know that the bad guys -- the really smart ones, anyway -- will almost always be a step ahead. So be it.
But the NFL's latest drug news, that it was adding amphetamine and methamphetamine to the list of substances that carry much stiffer sanctions and immediate suspensions -- the steroids list, basically -- was intriguing to those of us who didn't realize they weren't on that list to begin with. Why wouldn't they be?
There can't be much question about the efficacy of the drug. Greenies work, which is why Major League Baseball also finally moved to ban them after years of looking the other way -- they had become fairly commonplace in the clubhouse. This is short-term stimulation to the central nervous system, a very appealing idea to someone whose career is defined in three- and four-hour performance blocks. Anybody who works better after a strong cup of coffee in the morning can relate to the idea, if perhaps not to the inherent risk of long-term use or abuse of amphetamines themselves.
Of course, we're debating inside a thimble -- and that's the point. The NFL has done such a thorough job of muddying the waters around its own drug policies that most of the people who look in from the outside (and, alas, even a bunch of the folks on the inside) don't have a working idea what the list switch for amphetamines even signifies.
That's a shame, because it's a solid move. A player caught using amphetamines now is subject to an immediate four-game unpaid suspension, which increases to eight games the second time, then to a year after a third positive test. And the testing itself is upgraded, to year-round. Before, when the drugs were part of the basic (nonsteroid) league policy, it took three positive tests to warrant a suspension, and only an idiot would get caught, since the testing period was restricted from April 14 to Aug. 9.
You can argue that the NFL and its players are attempting to positively address the issue of amphetamines in their sport, even if -- as league exec Harold Henderson told The San Diego Union-Tribune -- they hadn't really viewed the drugs as a major issue in pro football before now. That's fair.
But without transparency in testing, what's the net gain? Now that a greenie violation gets you the same unpaid leave as a positive steroid test, surely there's something to be said for publicly differentiating the two.
As other athletic industries (the Olympics notable among them) strive for more openness in their test results, the NFL remains almost nostalgically opaque. Players get suspended for vague substance violations, spend some time away, then return. What happened to bring about their downtime is never made clear -- not even to the players' own team's executives, in some cases. We're free to assume the worst or the best or anything between.
It's just crazy. It leads to the kind of feeding frenzy seen in the Ricky Williams case, where marijuana was identified (by Williams) as the cause of his early positive tests, then denied (by Williams' agent) as the reason for his recent suspension from the NFL. Williams is playing in Canada, his story largely unresolved. Agent Leigh Steinberg says it wasn't pot that got his client out of the league this time -- but he won't say what did get him out.
Believe it, don't believe it -- it's entirely up to you. That's the problem. This is one of those instances in which secrecy, however well intended, just doesn't work. Time to try a different tack -- and this is the moment.
Mark Kreidler of The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.