Steroid appeals are lost cause

NFL is inflexible when it's challenged on drug suspensions

October 25, 2006|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Reporter

Neither Shawne Merriman's appeal nor his apology is likely to reverse a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's steroid policy.

The league's bottom line on drugs is that players are held accountable for everything that's in their bodies. They are presented with lists of banned substances and products, and can consult with team physicians and trainers. The San Diego Chargers linebacker's appeal is based on inadvertently taking a supplement tainted with a banned substance.

Since the NFL began disciplining players for steroids usage in 1989, it has suspended 57 active players. There was an equal number of suspensions that were not announced because the players either retired or were cut.

Agents for two players who have faced four-game suspensions acknowledged this week the difficulty in making a successful challenge to the league's steroids policy. Neither agent knew of any successful appeals.

Mark Slough, a Nashville, Tenn., agent who represents Sammy Morris, thought he had the perfect case to appeal the suspension of the Miami Dolphins running back last spring.

Morris had taken cough medicine prescribed by the team doctor last October. The medicine supposedly contained a form of pseudoephedrine that is legal. Soon after, however, Morris' urine samples tested positive for ephedrine, a banned substance.

At the end of the legal process, in which Morris' attorney cited a shortcoming of the league's testing laboratory, Morris had to serve his time.

"I walked away with the opinion if we can't succeed on appeal, then no one can," Slough said. "I think we made as good a case as can be made ... that Sammy was caught in a situation where he was a victim of the policy."

It has become a recurring theme in steroid suspensions lately.

When Detroit Lions defensive tackle Shaun Rogers drew a four-game suspension last week for testing positive for ephedrine, he told ESPN it was from taking an over-the-counter appetite suppressant for his weight.

Likewise, Atlanta Falcons guard Matt Lehr received a four-game penalty for violating the steroids policy, and his agent, Bob Lattinville, said it was from an over-the-counter product, and not an attempt to use an illegal performance-enhancing drug.

"There seems to be a high incidence of these lately," Slough said.

The NFL is considered to have the most comprehensive drug-testing program among all professional sports. The league tests every player for steroids during the preseason, then tests on a random weekly basis through the postseason.

The league said it conducts 10,000 steroid tests annually at labs in Salt Lake City and at UCLA. The strict liability concept comes with a no-tolerance policy.

A first offense warrants a four-game suspension. A second offense earns an eight-game suspension. And a third positive test brings a minimum suspension of one year.

Still, the number of players who appear to have made an unwitting mistake seems to be on the rise, said the attorney for Merriman and Morris.

"With each year under the steroids and related substances program, the percentage of players that test positive because they mistakenly ingest a prohibited substance goes up, while the percentage of players who test positive for [performance-enhancing drugs] goes down," attorney David Cornwell said.

"And the reason is the people who are cheating are able to outguess the system; whereas the people who don't know they've taken a prohibitive substance walk into the buzz saw and don't find out until they test positive."

Lattinville said Lehr did not knowingly take a banned substance. While he saw little chance in appeal, he said he also understands why the league drops the hammer on offenders.

"It's a political hot button," Lattinville said. "It's important, from the Senate hearings a couple years ago to the things that are happening now. Why it's so important to football is the competitive issue."

Slough said there's also the issue of perception for the NFL.

"I think some of it is [public relations]," he said. "It certainly looks good for the NFL as a whole to be coming down on people who are violating the steroids policy. But I don't know that that's necessarily a fair administration of the policy."

ESPN.com reported that Merriman's appeal will be heard on Nov. 7, allowing him to practice and to play in two more games for the Chargers. Cornwell held a news conference in San Diego on Monday night to say that Merriman had used an over-the-counter product that was tainted. He also said that nandrolone, the substance for which the former Maryland player tested positive, was often present in tainted supplements.

Yesterday, Dr. Gary Wadler, a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency's prohibited list committee and an expert in the field of drug use in sports, confirmed Cornwell's assertion about the tainted supplements.

"I've been saying for years athletes should avoid these dietary supplements," he said. "A, it's questionable how much benefit there is anyway, and B, you run the risk of an inadvertent positive doping test because of exquisitely small contaminants."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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