A Flaw in the NBA Doping Policy

October 2, 2013


By Charlie Livermore – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

Over ten years ago, a prominent member of the World Anti-Doping Agency research committee made a comment concerning the newly implemented steroid-testing program in the MLB labour agreement.

“It’s not a drug test. It’s an IQ test.”

The point was clear, and it’s a point that has been expressed by sports commenters many times since. Pro athletes often don’t fail drug tests because they take drugs; they fail tests because they fail to beat the system. And the system isn’t a hard thing to beat.

While baseball has been turned upside down since BALCO, and the NFL is under increasing scrutiny for steroid violations, one game has largely avoided the performance enhanced spotlight. The National Basketball Association has, for the most part, been relatively free of steroid scandal. Suspensions have occurred, but they are infrequent, inconspicuous, and largely restricted to players coming off the bench.

Defenders will occasionally argue basketball is fundamentally different than its harsher and more physical siblings, contending the game doesn’t lend itself to the advantages PEDs offer football or baseball players. This argument seems at best childishly naïve and at worst deeply irrational.

Basketball players would, of course, be better at their craft if they could run faster and longer, jump higher, and recover from injuries more rapidly. NBA insiders tend to agree; it isn’t that basketball doesn’t have performance enhancing drug users, it’s that they don’t get caught- and there are plenty of good reasons why.

Among the critics is WADA director David Howman, who has asserted the NBA believes they do not have the same issue with PEDs as other leagues, and “therefore haven’t addressed (doping) in quite the same way.” Other leaders in doping abuse have criticized the holes in the NBA’s current policy. There is no blood testing, no biological passports, and the system is vulnerable to microdosing (a practice recently made notoriously effective by Lance Armstrong’s medical team.)

It is commonly accepted that the Big Four professional sports leagues fall short of the  international anti-doping standard set by the Olympic movement and the WADA code, but the NBA has one gap in particular that deserves discussion: the timing and frequency of testing in the NBA is fundamentally flawed. And it’s flawed in a basic, and weird, and pretty stupid way.

According to the collective bargaining agreement between the Players Association and the League, which was revised in 2012, “all players are subject to four random tests each season” as well as “two random tests each off-season.”

If you believe the league sincerely wishes to prevent doping (which is a debate for another day,) the problem is simultaneously obvious and elusive. Players are only contractually obligated to give a sample four times per season, and those four times are generated randomly, regardless of when the previous test occurred. If a player’s number gets called four times before the season ends, it’s a legal certainty they will not have to give another sample until at least July. According to NBA writer Bill Simmons, it is a “running joke” in NBA circles that “once you pee in that fourth cup, you’re good to go.” The same applies, with only two tests, in the offseason.

While statistics dictate this can’t happen all that often, there’s no way to tell, and the rumors are that it does. If a player is looking to recover from a torn knee near the end of the season, bulk up during the summer, or supplement their training program with testosterone, they can use the timing of their contractual obligations to their advantage.

While certainly a dedicated doper could manipulate the toothless testing regime even when they still have required tests left, a more casual violator may see the chance to dope as a no-brainer if given such the indisputable opportunity this provision provides. In a grinding and exhaustive eighty-two game season, (long lamented by players for being too long,) it seems clear a few players, and more than a few trainers, would seize the chance to help their team with such a loophole. And they might be the type of players who don’t come off the bench- the type whose positive test could shatter professional basketball.

For an NBA player seeking a competitive advantage in the form of a banned substance, there are plenty of ways to beat the current system. Counting to four shouldn’t be one of them.

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