Colin McCallin Oct. 30, 2014

It has been a tumultuous year for the NFL in the wake of the multitude of disciplinary matters it has had to deal with. Denver Bronco standout Wes Welker was suspended 2 games for testing positive for MDMA at the Kentucky Derby. Another Bronco, Matt Prater, tested positive for alcohol while he was on a substance abuse program for a DUI conviction, which contributed to his release from the team. Cleveland Brown star receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for 10 games for testing positive for marijuana. There are many more.

The NFL has drafted new disciplinary policies in reaction to these issues. The NFL drug policy specifically has been completely revamped in 2014, but a lot of NFL fans don’t know the details of how it works. Let’s take a look.

First of all, what substances are banned? There are really three categories- 1) performance enhancing drugs (PED’s), 2) illicit recreational drugs, and 3) masking agents. For PED’s, the NFL is focused on human growth hormone (HGH) and steroid use. Illicit substances on the banned list include cocaine, methamphetamine, opiates (morphine and heroin), PCP, and MDMA (ecstasy). Alcohol may be prohibited if a player is involved in a substance abuse program.

PED’s are punished the most severely: Using steroids, stimulants, HGH or other banned substances will result in a four-game suspension. Attempting to manipulate a test will result in a six-game suspension. A second violation will result in a 10-game suspension. A third violation will result in a two-year minimum banishment. Using diuretics or masking agents will result in a two-game suspension.

Marijuana is still banned in the NFL, but the penalties for use have been changed to become more lenient. A first-time offense lands the player in the substance abuse program without a suspension. A second violation? Simply a two-game fine. Each additional violation receives the following progressive discipline: four-game fine, four-game suspension, 10-game suspension. A player can therefore test positive for marijuana three times without getting suspended from a single game.

There has been a recent movement to remove marijuana from the banned substances list. It is not a performance enhancer, and it has documented medicinal purposes such as pain relief. Many NFL players prefer it to pain killers that are otherwise legal The NFL has also faced criticism for heavy suspensions levied to players like Josh Gordon, while players such as alleged child abuser Adrian Peterson faced less serious suspensions. The new policy addresses these concerns by softening the discipline.

All other illicit substances are punished a bit more harshly than marijuana, but still allow a first time offender to avoid suspension and to participate in a substance abuse program.The policy was applied retroactively to players who were suspended before it became effective, which is why players like Josh Gordon and Wes Welker had their suspensions reduced.

This policy does not address players charged with crimes such as DUI, or domestic violence. Those situations are addressed in a separate manner.

This has been a public relations nightmare for the NFL, and it is likely that this policy will continue to evolve with more high profile players getting caught in its net.