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Updated Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 10:46 PM

NFL's drug policy too secretive and flawed

By Danny O'Neil
Seattle Times NFL reporter

Linebacker David Vobora didn't try to cheat.

In fact the special-teams ace who played with the Seahawks last season did everything he could to avoid it.

Vobora called the hotline set up for NFL players to ask whether certain products contained substances banned by the league. He researched the ingredients of supplements before he took them. He still wound up suspended for four games in 2009 for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs while he was with the St. Louis Rams.

The banned substance Vobora tested positive for was not listed among the ingredients of the product he took. That didn't matter to the NFL. Vobora eventually won a $5.4 million judgment against the manufacturer, but that didn't affect Vobora's status with the league, either. I interviewed him on 710 ESPN Seattle on Friday afternoon to talk about the case.

"There is an appeals process, but I'm going to be real about it," Vobora said. "There's not much of an appeals process. It's 'You're guilty' and you're going to have to serve it, regardless."

All of this is of particular importance in Seattle given that cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, two of the Seahawks' best players, are reportedly appealing violations of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

The fact that a player like Vobora, who tried to do everything right, still wound up going wrong speaks to the unyielding nature of the NFL's drug policy. It also shows how flawed it is.

The NFL will suspend a player like Vobora for unknowingly taking a tainted supplement, but it still does not test for Human Growth Hormone. It won't budge when it comes to punishments, yet won't specify publicly what a player took.

That lack of transparency has turned what the league once touted as the foremost drug-testing policy in American professional sports into something that is not as complete as it should be.

You could call it the NFL's dark little secret, except everyone knows. Yet for some reason the use of performance-enhancing drugs has not triggered the same outrage in football as it has in other sports.

In baseball, steroids became a national crisis of conscience to the point that it was mentioned by President George W. Bush in the "State of the Union" address. Doping turned the Tour de France from a cycling competition to a drug-enforcement exercise and resulted in the public shunning of Lance Armstrong earlier this year.

Yet in football — a sport that values size and speed in ever-more-potent combinations — the policy on performance-enhancing drugs is both incomplete in what it tests for and inadequate in what it reveals about those tests.

By not specifying what substance a player took, the league effectively keeps the public hazy on what players are using to gain a chemical advantage, whether it's a stimulant like Adderall — a prescribed amphetamine — or an anabolic steroid. It would be like a police department releasing crime statistics without distinguishing the jaywalking citations from the assault charges.

The confidentiality is mandated by the collective-bargaining agreement, and that's also a cop-out. This is a league that locked players out over the distribution of revenue, shutting down a multibillion dollar business for more than four months last year over dollars and cents. If the owners wanted transparency, they could have transparency. Instead, everyone gets to stay mum when it suits them.

The league's new agreement does include a provision for testing for HGH, but we're almost two seasons into the deal and the NFL and its players association have yet to agree on a protocol for the blood tests to detect HGH.

So the league keeps administering a policy that will suspend a player like Vobora for committing an honest — and in many ways unavoidable — mistake while failing to test for more potent performance-enhancers.

Vobora's case demonstrates that violations are not always as simple and straightforward as they appear, but it also shows how hard it is for a player to prevail once he's found to have tested positive.

"I would like to see the system err on the side of innocence until proven guilty instead of the other way around," he said.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @dannyoneil


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