DeAndre Hopkins back from ban, but NFL’s drug issues never left

Arizona Cardinals star receiver DeAndre Hopkins gave a cryptic response this week when asked to explain how he tested positive last year for a strange, steroid-like drug called ostarine.

“It’ll come out after the year,” Hopkins said Tuesday.

He previously said he didn’t know how he could have ingested the substance, which triggered a six-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

After serving his punishment, he finally will return to action Thursday night against New Orleans.

But a larger problem persists even if Hopkins isn’t revealing more about it yet, and the NFL won’t talk about it at all. Ostarine is classified as an anabolic agent, which is a broad, potent class of performance-enhancing substances that includes steroids, human growth hormone and erythropoietin (EPO).

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Since October 2020, at least 31 players have been suspended after violating the league’s policy for performance-enhancing drugs, according to a USA TODAY Sports database of more than 265 such suspensions since 2001. Of those 31, 20 were six-game suspensions, indicating they were triggered by positive tests for anabolic agents, the most serious kind of drugs banned under the policy.

The NFL does not announce which drugs were involved in these suspensions, unlike Major League Baseball. Neither does the NFL Players Association. It’s up to the player to reveal it, which they don’t often do as Hopkins did earlier this year by saying it involved a trace amount of ostarine.

The league instead left a clue in the new policy that started in 2020 under the new collective bargaining agreement between the players and league management: “Positive Test Result for Anabolic Agent — six regular and/or postseason games,” the policy states for first-time positive tests of prohibited substances.

Other substances such as stimulants, diuretics and masking agents get two-game suspensions for first-time positives, not six games. Of the 31 suspensions since October 2020, only eight were for two games and one was for a full season after a prior six-game suspension for the same player: tight end Chase Harrell.

Almost all the rest were for six games, a sign that anabolic drugs are still part of the game 33 years after the league tried to crack down on it with drug testing and suspensions.

“It certainly suggests that it’s more prevalent than previously understood,” said Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which administers the anti-doping for Olympic sports but not the NFL. “It’s why the lack of transparency is so troubling. It would be great to see even more than the very tip of the iceberg than the public gets access to.”

These public clues weren’t possible to connect before 2020, when in-season stimulant use got the same suspension for a first-time offense as anabolic agents. That penalty then was four games for both classes of drugs. If the player chose to reveal the drug at issue, they often said it was Adderall, a stimulant used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

13,000-plus drug tests

One major purpose of performance-enhancing drug policies in sports is to protect public confidence in the games and maintain a level playing field for clean athletes. Transparency about violators helps that mission by enhancing accountability and trust. 

The NFL policy since 2020 at least slightly increased the transparency of the existence of anabolic agents in the NFL, which once had a steroid problem so rampant that Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Bill Fralic testified to Congress in 1989 that an estimated 75% of linemen used steroids. Later that year, 13 players were suspended for it on one day as the league began to crack down.

Under the policy since 2020, a six-game suspension is only specified for one class of substances (anabolic agents), though a player can be suspended for “up to six games” based on evidence besides testing that is far less common, such as criminal convictions for distributing steroids or stimulants.

Further transparency is still an issue. The NFL’s PED policy before 2020 said the players and league would “discuss the possibility” of periodically disseminating ‘de-identified, aggregated information’ about the administration of the policy, including ‘the nature of violations and/or substances involved.’

The new policy in 2020 changed this to state the parties “will prepare and disseminate” an annual report with this information. USA TODAY Sports asked for this report from the NFL but didn’t receive a reply. NFLPA spokesman Brandon Parker said Wednesday the first of these reports was done in 2020.

‘None of the reports are available for public consumption,’ he said in an e-mail.

Such information still wouldn’t reveal the true frequency and nature of anabolic drug use even though the league tests for such drugs regularly. The NFLPA estimates 13,000-plus drug tests are conducted per year. If only 10 to 20 are caught per year in testing, that’s less than 1% of players and an even smaller rate of positivity in testing.

But cyclist Lance Armstrong is among those who have shown that an absence of positive drug tests does not mean an absence of intentional doping. In the NFL, there is arguably an even bigger incentive than other sports to use concealed, prohibited doping methods. That’s because there’s more money at stake and less time to earn it in an injury-prone sport that prizes strength, size and speed.

“I’ve been saying for decades that only careless and stupid people get caught,” longtime doping expert Charles Yesalis told USA TODAY Sports in January. “You look at the financial rewards (for players) over time. Have they increased or decreased? Well, they’ve increased. People are making way more money. Teams are worth way more money. So the financial incentive has not waned, OK?”

Tygart also has noted several weaknesses in the NFL’s doping policy that can make it easier for dopers to avoid testing positive, including the league’s emphasis on random testing, as opposed to more intelligence-driven, targeted testing of players who are coming back from injury or have shown signs of enhancement.

Hopkins’ case renews another issue – whether players really are unknowingly ingesting anabolic agents.

‘Have you ever deliberately ingested ANY?’

Accidental or unknowing ingestions of prohibited substances have been documented, particularly with ostarine, which has shown up in dietary supplements that are largely unregulated. Another NFL player, Taylor Lewan of the Tennessee Titans, even took a lie-detector test to answer these two questions after testing positive for ostarine in 2019, which then triggered only a four-game suspension.

“Have you ever knowingly ingested ostarine?”

“Have you ever deliberately ingested ANY illegal drug to enhance your performance?”

Lewan truthfully answered “no” to each question, according to results he publicized afterward.

“We have found that a large number of the violations are ultimately deemed to be unintentional use of a supplement that was contaminated,” Parker of the NFLPA told USA TODAY Sports in February.

Tygart sympathizes with players actually caught in such situations because he said it’s not fair that those players get the same punishment as those who intentionally cheat. That happens in the NFL because it has a “strict liability policy.” That means “you are responsible for what is in your body,” according to the policy.

NFL players can appeal suspensions, but it can be difficult to succeed in those cases, as Hopkins has attested. The policy states a player cannot satisfy his burden in a challenge to his punishment merely by arguing that he took a mislabeled or contaminated product and didn’t intentionally use it. 

By contrast, Tygart’s organization considers supplement contamination claims by investigating them in relation to the drug test result. The higher the concentration of a banned substance in the sample, the less likely it was an accident. In Hopkins’ case, he said his testing sample barely exceeded the threshold required to trigger a positive result.

MLB comparison

Under USADA rules, athletes still can be suspended for six months even if there is credible evidence of them unknowingly ingesting banned substances. In theory, they still could have gained an unfair advantage from such drugs in those cases. But without such evidence, a positive test for a drug like ostarine can get a USADA suspension of two or four years.

USADA also publicly releases the substance at issue in a suspension. So does Major League Baseball, unlike the NFL.

MLB has roughly half as many players as the NFL but still has conducted about 11,000 drug tests per year during normal seasons not affected by a labor lockout or pandemic, according to its annual testing report.

In MLB, a substance like ostarine would trigger an 80-game suspension for a first-time offense – half the season, as opposed to about one-third of the season (six games) in the NFL. Since October 2020, 12 MLB players have been suspended for anabolic substances – 11 for 80 games and one for a full season.

These longer suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs in other sports aren’t just used for deterrence, Tygart noted. They also theoretically help offset the longer-term performance benefits players get from using them, which can last much longer than the six-week ban that’s been the policy of NFL since 2020.  

Before that – for decades – the baseline suspension in the NFL for steroids was only four games, or about a month. That increased to six games under the new collective bargaining agreement at the same time that first-time positive tests for in-season stimulant use decreased to two games from four. This apparently was part of the give-and-take in negotiations between the players association and league management.

“The policy’s penalties were reduced for stimulants because we viewed it as more of a substances of abuse issue, and we wanted to take a more treatment-based approach to help our player members versus a punitive approach,” Parker told USA TODAY Sports earlier this year.

Parker also told USA TODAY Sports in February that the league “does not have a performance-enhancing substance problem.”

“While innocent use is not a defense, it does not indicate a performance-enhancing substance or steroid problem across the league,” he said.

He declined further comment about anabolic agents. The NFL didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

Both the NFL and NFLPA have an interest in avoiding additional transparency about its doping program and test results. Both sides make money off bigger, stronger, faster bodies. Neither wants to hand over their joint control of the doping policy to an independent agency such as USADA.

Meanwhile, without more information, suspicions remain about Hopkins, who was battling injuries late last year and could have used a boost. Similarly, former Titans safety Bernard Pollard cast doubt on Lewan’s denial after Lewan was suspended for ostarine in 2019.

‘You mean to tell me you are a multi-million-dollar athlete, and you don’t know what the freak you’re putting in your system?’ Pollard asked in video posted on Twitter in 2019. ‘Come on, man. Don’t cheat this game.’

Tygart told USA TODAY Sports this week that the NFL ‘ought to have the best’ anti-doping program, with more transparency to reduce suspicions.

‘Unfortunately, they don’t,” Tygart said. “Are these numbers (for six-game suspensions) scratching the surface, or are we to believe that everyone else is being deterred from use? The policy is not as good as it should and could be. It’s absolutely a fair question that needs to be asked.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

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