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NFL takes no-player-left-behind approach to substance education

ATLANTA -- Jeff Fish, the Atlanta Falcons Director of Athletic Performance -- the strength coach for most teams -- has been approached many times by players wanting to know if supplements they were interested in taking contained ingredients banned by the NFL.

"I can look at every substance that's supposed to be in there, tell them that it's clean and it could be tainted with something that's banned because these companies that aren't certified by the NFL don't have to tell you what's in there," Fish said. "I don't feel comfortable telling guys anything is OK unless it's been certified by the league."

Even so, players still take pills and medicines and ingest drinks at their own risk, Fish said, all in the name of supposedly better health, bigger muscles and leaner frames.

  -- Jeff Fish, 
 Falcons strength coach 

"At the end of the day," Fish said, "every player is responsible for what he puts into his body."

That universal catch phrase laid bare by the league, its players union and its players seems simple enough. After all, ignorance of the law won't keep you from getting a ticket for driving 55 mph in a 30-mph zone.

Yet each NFL season, players are investigated, suspended and incriminated for putting something in their bodies that is banned by the NFL and its union.

Gaining an edge or finding that quick antidote, to some, is worth the risk, even though players are tested multiple times a year and have been educated in meetings, provided written and on-line literature and have seen or known someone who has suffered the consequences.

For some players, though, confusion still hovers. The issue has grown far more diverse than players using or not using muscle-building anabolic steroids.

In perhaps the highest-profile case of a player testing positive for a banned substance, Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman was given a four-game suspension by the NFL in 2006. Merriman's lawyer, David Cornwell, claims Merriman tested positive for the steroid nandrolone, which, he said at the time, ended up in his client's body from a tainted supplement.

Cornwell is representing some of the players currently being investigated by the NFL for violating the league's drug policy by ingesting a weight-loss diuretic that is considered a masking agent for steroids. Saints players Jamar Nesbit and Deuce McAllister have publicly admitted to testing positive for the diuretic Bumetanide. While Nesbit served his four-game suspension earlier this season, McAllister and others have appealed theirs.

Taking a diuretic to drop a couple of pounds in a hurry to meet a weigh-in can be a preferred route for players over sitting in a steam room for hours or fasting, options that sap the body of energy.

A weighty issue

One of the biggest challenges NFL strength coaches, trainers and medical staffs face is players who need to lose or gain weight. Having players cut weight is one of the most delicate subjects because in everyday life people would rather take a pill or drink a certain tea instead of working to lose the weight or eating the right way.

"There are a lot of big guys in the league always trying to get the weight off," said Jeff Fish, strength coach for the Atlanta Falcons. "I am fortunate that we have the resources where we meet with each player one on one and dial in an exact calorie amount that he needs to lose weight on the day he practices because he might have a different calorie need the day before a game."

Of the players currently being investigated for violation of the league's banned-substance policy, three -- the Saints' Deuce McAllister and Jamar Nesbit and Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jackson -- have publicly admitted to testing positive for Bumetanide, a diuretic that can be used as masking agent for steroids.

In Atlanta, each player is given a card and a recommended meal plan. Falcons players are fed breakfast, lunch and dinner at the team facility, but that doesn't mean some won't sneak a late-night pizza or have two scoops of vanilla ice cream instead of one.

That's where things get tricky.

"Society says, 'Give me the pill because I don't want to do the work or eat right,'" Fish said. "We are trying to put these guys in the habit of doing things the right way now so when they are 45 or 50, they won't be tempted to fall back on pills."

-- Steve Wyche

There's also the issue of prescription medicines that are handed out by personal physicians or team doctors. Some could contain banned substances, although the rest of the ingredients could help curb high cholesterol or lower blood pressure.

Naturalistic diets can also present interesting blends of ingredients that could pop up on the banned-substances list, even though they supposedly are of the purist ilk Mother Nature could conjure.

There seemingly are areas of gray that sometimes, by nobody's fault in particular, end up being dealt with in black and white.

"It is up to the player to make sure he is compliant to our policy," said Adolpho Birch, the NFL's vice president of law and labor policy. "The view of the league and the union, having been a party to this ... is if you have a banned substance in your body, it is a violation of the policy."

As firm as the stance may seem, Birch says the NFL does allow for certain ingredients if an investigation shows that a player has had a medical history that requires a prescription containing a banned substance. It is referred to as a "therapeutic-use" exemption. "If that's the case," Birch said, "it is not a violation."

Those players who think they can be excused from testing positive for a banned substance because of a holistic diet, where juices, extracts and all-natural supplements are needed to maintain muscle development or to cut water weight or to provide the needed energy to compete likely won't get the same latitude.

"The idea of naturalism is one of the biggest misconceptions," Birch said. "Almost every supplement will bill itself as 'all natural.' I do understand how people could gravitate toward that, thinking it's not dangerous or not prohibitive. Some extracts that are on our list, typically are in the stimulant category. Those stimulants present problems, particularly in training camp where strenuous activity generates heat in the body, and that could form a dangerous combination."

According to a 2006 New York Times story, the NFL performs about 10,000 tests for performance-enhancing drugs to about 1,800 players each year. Selected randomly, players are tested at least once a year, but most are asked to give a urine sample multiple times during the season. In the offseason, players can be tested as many as six times, any time at any place.

The overall health of the players is the main reason a banned-substance policy has been in place since 1989, Birch said. Players gaining an unfair, artificial competitive edge is also a big reason why so many substances are outlawed, Birch added.

The NFL and its players union begins the player education of banned substances at the pre-draft combine. Prospects are tested there and provided seminars and paperwork about the NFL's drug program. Not only is a list of banned substances provided, so is a list of banned supplement companies.

EAS is the only supplement company authorized by the NFL and the NFLPA because it has agreed to not only use ingredients that are approved but also to develop those supplements in laboratories that follow the proper chain of manufacturing the product. There are some supplements that EAS may not produce.

Nesbit and Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jackson have filed lawsuits against Balanced Health Products, the maker of StarCaps, the over-the-counter weight-loss supplement they took that contained the banned Bumetanide. Both players are suing for financial damages, in Nesbit's case $235,294 he lost in salary while serving his suspension. Meanwhile, StarCaps has suspended shipments of the pill.

"The unfortunate part of it is the supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration)," said Titans center and NFLPA president Kevin Mawae. "So a company could be making muscle drink or protein drink but it's coming through the same vats or same machines that a steroid product is coming through and those have trace elements that are, or are not, put in purposely.

"The ingredients aren't put on the label. They don't have to be. It might not be a reflection on the player. They're not drug users or steroid abusers. They just happen to take a product with something in it. It's just unfortunate that if you provide a positive test, you become part of the (drug) program."

That said, Mawae isn't overly forgiving to any player who tests positive.

  -- Kevin Mawae 

Aside from the year-round education and testing programs, the NFL has a hotline for players to call if they have any questions about whether a supplement or ingredients in a supplement is banned. The NFLPA, on its website, also has a supplement hotline as well as a hotline to EAS.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Bernard Berrian said in an interview last month that he called the hotline because he was taking a protein beverage that was "kind of fairly new and I wanted to make sure that it wasn't illegal and I'd get suspended for taking it." He said he was unable to get in contact with a consultant the first two times he called, but reached someone on a third try.

Birch said players are supposed to get a return call if they leave a message in the event they can't get in contact with an advisor on the hotline.

Getting the OK from a team official or anyone not officially authorized to provide advice on a supplement will not excuse a player from a positive test, Birch said. That's why Fish won't ever tell a player that something is permissible even if he believes it is.

In an effort to avoid confusion, Fish said he and his staff have NFL-approved supplements at the team facility and provide them to players that need them. Players are educated about the value and effect of the supplement at preseason meetings and on an individual basis.

"I've always looked at it to educate them the best way that we can," Fish said. "I do know there are some teams that say, 'Don't take anything.' That way they wash their hands of anything that happens. At the same time you send your players out on the street to fend for themselves. I try to give them as much information as we can that the league provides."

But as much education that is out there, not everyone will listen.

"What it boils down to is everybody is responsible for what they put in their body," Mawae said, "whether they knew about it or didn't know about it."

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