After three years of haggling, the NFL and the NFL Players Assn. finally reached an agreement to test players for human growth hormone, a move widely regarded as a positive development in an otherwise harrowing start to the 2014 season.
The new testing policy for performance-enhancing drugs (PED), including HGH, could begin as soon as the end of the month.
The accord has an immediate impact on three standout players. Denver receiver Wes Welker, St. Louis receiver Stedman Bailey, and Dallas defensive back Orlando Scandrick — all of whom had been suspended for four games — are now eligible to return in half the time and will be available for this weekend's games.
Those three benefit from a rules change in which players who test positive for banned stimulants in the off-season will no longer be suspended but will be referred to the league's substance-abuse program.
Players who test positive for banned stimulants during the season will continue to receive four-game suspensions.
"I said it was flawed, and we got it fixed," said Welker, who tested positive for amphetamines during the off-season.
When they agreed to the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011, the NFL and NFLPA vowed to hammer out a deal for HGH testing. That took three years, however, as the players union questioned the science in the testing and the appeals process for positive tests.
"We are talking about cleaning up our game and keeping a clean game," Scandrick told reporters Wednesday. "We are not cleaning up our game if we are suspending guys for stimulants and not testing guys for human growth hormones."
A third-party arbitrator will hear appeals of positive tests under the new agreement, and those cases will be handled in a more expeditious way.
Under the old drug policy, all first-time offenders of the PED policy automatically were given a four-game suspension. The new rules are more nuanced, with use of a diuretic or masking agent resulting in a two-game suspension; in-season use of stimulants, HGH or other banned substances resulting in a four-game suspension, and players getting a six-game ban if there's evidence they attempted to tamper with a test.
A second violation of the PED policy will result in a 10-game suspension, and a third means a suspension of at least two years.
The league and union are working on changes to the substance-abuse policy, which could shorten the penalty on Cleveland receiver Josh Gordon, who is serving a full-season suspension.
The World Anti-Doping Agency applauded the league and union for reaching an agreement on HGH testing.
"While the program differs from that of the World Anti-Doping Code, WADA views the changes as a positive step forward for the league," Ben Nichols, a spokesman for the organization, told The Times by email. "The inclusion of human Growth Hormone [hGH] testing in any anti-doping program is important, and should act as a strong deterrent to those contemplating doping."
Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform respectively, issued a joint statement praising the NFL-NFLPA drug-testing pact:
"This new HGH policy sends a clear message to NFL players, as well as student-athletes at the collegiate, high school, and youth levels that HGH and other performance-enhancing drugs are highly dangerous and will not be tolerated in athletic competition. While the League and the Players remain in negotiations on a new substance abuse policy for non-performance enhancing drugs, we look forward to continuing to work with the parties to reach a comprehensive agreement."
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter: @LATimesfarmer