Pubdate: Mon, 13 Apr 2020
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2020 The New York Times Company
Author: Ken Belson


The 10-year labor agreement between the N.F.L. and players union that
was ratified on March 15 is filled with dozens of incremental changes,
most notably the one-percentage-point increase in the share of league
revenue that the players will receive.

One of the biggest overhauls in the agreement, though, was a change
the league had long resisted: loosening the rules governing players'
use of marijuana.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, players who test
positive for marijuana will no longer be suspended. Testing will be
limited to the first two weeks of training camp instead of from April
to August, and the threshold for the amount of 9-delta
tetrahydrocannabinol - or THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana
- - needed to trigger a positive test will be raised fourfold.

In adopting the changes, the N.F.L., a league not known for its
liberal views, caught up to and in some ways leapfrogged Major League
Baseball, the N.B.A. and other leagues that had already eased their
rules as acceptance of marijuana became more common in many parts of
the country.

"There is a generalized sense that the fans don't care about the
issue, so it's possible to appear progressive," said Paul Haagen,
co-director of the Center for Sports Law and Policy at Duke University.

the N.F.L.'s laxer standards are a big departure from the past. But
while players will not be suspended for positive tests, they can be
fined several weeks' salary, depending on the number of positive
tests. First-time positive tests will, as before, mean diversion into
a league-mandated treatment program. Players who refuse to take part
in testing or clinical care can be suspended for three games after a
fourth violation, with escalating penalties for further violations.

Current and former players have long pushed for looser restrictions on
marijuana, which they claim is a less addictive pain reliever than
prescription medication, and a growing number of N.F.L. owners saw the
rules as a hindrance because resulting suspensions kept some of their
best players off the field.

Over the years, the N.F.L. had resisted loosening its marijuana rules
to avoid conflicting with federal and state laws. But as more states
have approved the use of marijuana for medical or recreational
purposes, the league found itself enforcing a policy that, in some
instances, was more punitive than local laws. In 11 states, including
seven with N.F.L. franchises, the drug is legal for any use.
Thirty-one states allow use for medical reasons. The Green Bay Packers
and the Tennessee Titans play in states where marijuana remains
entirely illegal.

The N.F.L. and the N.F.L. Players Association continue to study the
purported healing and addictive qualities of marijuana. The players
pushed for a relaxed marijuana policy in part because of mounting
research that details the hazards of alternatives - including the
addiction rates among prescription opioid users and the irreversible
internal damage that can be caused by opioids and nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Toradol, which has long been used to
treat N.F.L. players.

"The league's considerations included a number of issues, including
its status legally, but most important was always the advice and
recommendations of the medical and clinical professionals," Brian
McCarthy, a league spokesman, said. That "remains the case."

It is unclear what percentage of N.F.L. players use marijuana. Over
the years, current and former players have estimated that 50 percent
to 90 percent of players use the drug. Former players like Ricky
Williams and Rob Gronkowski have openly discussed the benefits of
marijuana and cannabidiol, or CBD, a nonintoxicating compound found in
the plant. But it wasn't until 2016 that the first active player -
Eugene Monroe, an offensive lineman with the Baltimore Ravens - urged
the league to stop testing players for marijuana so that he and others
could take it to treat chronic pain.

Now out of the league, Monroe said that the N.F.L. and union had not
gone far enough in the new agreement. "Why are they still testing at
all?" he said. "I don't understand. Just move on from this and do the
right thing and let the players make the choice. There's no secret
that players smoke marijuana."

The new rules will not change the status of players who are currently
suspended for violating the substance abuse policy that is being
replaced. Players who were banished under the previous agreement,
after multiples positive tests, must still petition Commissioner Roger
Goodell to be reinstated.

For example, Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory, who has been
suspended four times for missed or failed tests, has asked to be
reinstated after being suspended indefinitely in February 2019,
according to ESPN.

Some current players said that the looser testing standards were
irrelevant, because they did not use the drug. "No lie i could care
less about the marijuana policy," Quandre Diggs, a defensive back with
the Seattle Seahawks, wrote on Twitter about 10 days before the
agreement was ratified.

Some former players warn that the looser rules could lead to a spike
in drug abuse. Randy Grimes, who played 10 seasons for the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers and now works as a substance abuse counselor after a long
battle with opioid addiction, said that the N.F.L. must do more to
address the mental health problems that drugs both mask and amplify.

"The marijuana now is incredibly engineered and potent, and it's
trouble waiting to happen," he said. "I'm in the industry that sees
the danger of mood-altering substances, and that's what marijuana is."

The trend in professional sports, though, is to reduce penalties. In
December, Major League Baseball removed marijuana from its list of
banned substances and now treats it the same way as alcohol: Players
are not randomly tested unless they are in a treatment program. The
National Hockey League still tests for marijuana, but there is no
punishment for a positive result. Players with "a dangerously high
level" of THC in their system are referred to the player assistance
program for evaluation.

N.B.A. players must take four random tests for marijuana during the
regular season. After a first positive test, a player must enter a
drug program. A second positive test will result in a $25,000 fine,
and a third will lead to a five-game suspension.

While the N.F.L. Players Association hailed the looser standards as a
victory, they were also a win for the owners. In the making of this
new labor deal, the relaxation of the testing rules may have been one
of the easiest points to negotiate.

The owners prioritized economic issues, like the split in revenue and
the addition of extra games, over rules governing the workplace.
Players sought to gain ground on those issues, demanding things like
less taxing training camps and limits on the number of full-contact

The owners saw loosening the testing standards as a concession that
might persuade some players to vote for the agreement, which
ultimately passed by just 60 votes.

"The owners were able to get two things done at the same time by
minimizing the penalties and appealing to another segment of the
membership," said Charles Grantham, the director of the Center for
Sport Management at Seton Hall University who was a longtime executive
at the National Basketball Players Association. "They found religion
because it was cheap and easy. It wasn't a big give."
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MAP posted-by: Matt