The Roar
The Roar


Understanding the NFL’s substance abuse policies

Roar Rookie
17th September, 2016

Recently, while having a discussion with my co-hosts on the In the Pocket podcast, I joked that finally Le’Veon Bell has had a trouble-free offseason. Well, unfortunately, I spoke too soon.

Bell finds himself in hot water yet again. The NFL has a strict policy when it comes to substance abuse and it is important to note that in this instance, Bell did not return a positive drug test. He was suspended for failing to take a drug test, which the NFL takes just as seriously. Bell claimed that he missed the phone call from the Medical Review Officer because he got a new phone.

Bell has form with substance abuse. Last year, he was found to be in possession of 20 grams of marijuana while driving under the influence. He was in the car with former teammate LeGarrette Blount and model Mercedes Dollson.

He told the police officer at the time, “I didn’t know you could get a DUI for being high. I smoked two hours ago. I’m not high anymore. I’m perfectly fine.”

Bell is the best running back in the NFL. He is a pure tailback and his talents are in the same rarefied air as Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. One fumble in three seasons would suggest that Bell is almost flawless.

If Bell did not suffer a season-ending knee injury last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers may have found themselves playing in a Super Bowl. Great running backs have that influence. They bring balance to their team and keep the opposing defences honest. They win championships.

In order to understand Bells’ sanction, we’ve thoroughly studied the NFL’s policy on substance abuse and have provided a breakdown below.

NFL Substance Abuse Policy – The Breakdown
NFL players are only tested once per year, if they return a negative drug test then they will not be tested again until the following season. Theoretically, they could smoke as much marijuana during the season as they care to and they will not be subject to another test.

If, however, they return a positive drug test, then they will enter the NFL’s Intervention Program which has three stages – we’ll explore this in more detail below.


A positive drug test is not the only way a player can enter the NFL’s Intervention Program. If they show signs of behaviour/physiological issues they can enter the program. There’s also an option for players to voluntarily enter through self-referral.

A player will be considered guilty and will be disciplined accordingly for either refusing to take a drug test, manipulating a drug test or in Bells’ case, failing to take a drug test.

Under the current policy, NFL players are also tested either before they sign with a new team, during the preseason, during the Intervention Program (if applicable) and/or by agreement.

As mentioned above, the NFL has designed the Intervention Program for players who have failed a drug test. Payment for this treatment will be governed by the NFL Player Insurance Plan.

Stage one
A player entering Stage One will be assessed by the Medical Director who will determine if the player would benefit from a clinical intervention or not. If a clinical intervention is required, the player will be referred to a Treating Clinician and a Treatment Plan will be implemented.

Stage One is confidential and the NFL Players Association will ensure that all players in Stage One remain anonymous.

They will be fined three-17ths of their base salary, as stipulated in Paragraph 5 of their NFL contact.

The Intervention program is designed to rehabilitate players and if successful, they will be discharged after a maximum of 90 days. A player who is unsuccessful and does not adhere to the Treatment Plan or returns a positive drug test during Stage One will advance to Stage Two.


Stage two
Players in Stage Two will be subject to unannounced drug testing and can be tested up to ten times per calendar month. They will remain in Stage two for 24 months or two full seasons.

A player who violates Stage Two will be suspended without pay for four games automatically. In this case the players name will not be protected and details will become public. If a player has a second violation in Stage Two they will be suspended for six games and will advance to Stage Three.

If a player successfully completes the Stage Two program without discretion they will be discharged and their record will be cleared.

Stage three
When a player enters Stage Three the Medical Director will update their Treatment Plan accordingly. If a player tests positive during Stage Three they will be banished from the NFL for a total of one calendar year. If the positive test result if for marijuana, they will be suspended for a total of ten games.

During banishment, the player will still have to adhere to the Intervention Program and obey the guidelines in their specific Treatment Plan. They will remain in Stage Three for the remainder of their career.

However, after a player spends 24 months in Stage Three, and does not have any additional positive tests, it will be up to the discretion of the Medical Director to decide if the player should be discharged from the Intervention Program or not. If agreed, the player will be discharged from the Intervention Program and their record will be cleared.

After a player has completed their one-year suspension the Commissioner will determine if and when the player can return to the NFL. If reinstated, the player will have to continue the Treatment Plan and remain in Stage Three for the reminder of their career.

Alcohol is not a prohibited substance in the NFL. However, if a player is enrolled in the Intervention Program and the Treatment Plan states that alcohol is prohibited, and they test positive, then they will be sanctioned accordingly.


Josh Gordon, the Cleveland Browns wide receiver, was suspended for one year because he tested positive for alcohol in Stage Three of the Intervention Program as his Treatment Plan prohibited the use of alcohol.

The NFL has a no tolerance policy when it comes to substance abuse. While in the Intervention Program, players are given multiple opportunities to clean up their act. The program provides each individual with the correct tools to ensure they are successful on and off the field.

Getting back to Bell. There’s no doubt that he is a young guy doing his thing. We know he’s a naturally gifted player and a game-changer, but his carelessness is getting him into trouble. Bell has to start taking responsibility for his actions.

A lot of planning goes into an NFL season and now – due to Bell’s irresponsibility – the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves planning to win games of football without their playmaker, yet again.

It’s time for the running back to sort it out, be a man, and be a teammate. It’s time to ring that Bell, before the NFL does.