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Lockout is no free pass on drug testing

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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Celebrity Rehab now has a whole other meaning for players in the NFL's substance-abuse program.

There isn't any.

The suspension of the league's testing program during an NFL lockout has given rise to the possibility that players will reenact their own real-life versions of Half-Baked and Bigger, Stronger, Faster. But a spike in recreational and performance-enhancing drug use isn't Adolpho Birch's biggest concern.

As overseer of the NFL's drug-testing program, Birch is more worried about those players who were receiving treatment and counseling under league auspices. Those programs are no longer mandatory.

"I look first at those impacted who were getting the benefit of an intervention program," Birch told FOXSports.com last week. "We have advised those players who were either receiving treatment or testing that they could continue to see the clinicians they were seeing. Obviously, they'd have to be doing that on their own and it would entirely be their choice. But that option is available to them."

Unfortunately, it's not an option that some affected players may choose to take.

During the lockout enacted earlier this month, all NFL players now have to pay for their own medical care through COBRA. That includes the counseling services for those in the league's treatment programs.

There also is the possibility that sessions attended during a lockout will not count toward removing a player from the auspices of the drug program once a new CBA is reached.

Under those circumstances, Birch realizes there is a chance some players will fall off the wagon.

"If guys do not continue to take advantage of the program," Birch said, "I'm concerned about them, their families, the people who depend on them and that the progress that has been made may not continue.

"I really do hope they either continue to utilize those clinicians or find another means to make sure they continue to address their issues and make progress."

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Because those in the NFL's drug program are protected by confidentiality, Birch said he is unaware how many players were receiving treatment before the lockout. Players are subject to medical evaluation and potential counseling for violating the substance-abuse policy. A mandatory four-game suspension follows a third failed drug test. Players are automatically suspended four games for a violation of the steroid policy.

Five players have gotten arrested since the NFL lockout was instituted March 11. One of them (Green Bay defensive tackle Johnny Jolly) was nine months into a year-long drug suspension. Jolly was arrested last Friday for illegal possession of codeine for the second time in three years.

The NFL conducts about 26,000 random drug tests a year (14,000 for performance-enhancing drugs; 12,000 for recreational drugs). Roughly 6,000 tests are administered during the offseason.

It would be naive to believe that testing is fool-proof. There also is no testing done for human growth hormone, which the NFL is pushing to change in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Players Association.

Birch, though, is proud of what the league has accomplished on the testing front.

"I think we consistently have had among the most effective programs in sports generally, certainly among professional sports (leagues)," said Birch, the NFL's senior vice president of law and labor policy. "When you look on balance, we have done a tremendous amount of work in trying to protect against the threat steroids and drugs of abuse have on our game. You're not going to eliminate them altogether but you can try and eliminate the threat.

"If you look at our policy from even the late 1980s to now, it would be like comparing a Model T vs. a Ferrari. The Model T was a good car back then. But you never can be content . . . When we find things that need to be improved, we try to improve them. For the most part, we have had a willing partner in (the NFLPA). We're going to try and keep that going forward."

Birch believes that most players will continue to shun drug use even without the threat of random testing.

"Obviously the vast majority of our guys have no issue in this respect," he said.

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But those that stray still face stiff penalties if caught. Any player arrested even during the lockout will face potential discipline under the NFL's personal conduct policy.

When testing does resume, players who register positive for steroids by taking athletic supplements with banned ingredients won't be given any extra leeway. While teams and NFL strength coaches are prohibited from any player contact during the lockout, a hotline sponsored by the league and NFLPA remains open to answer questions about supplements and their ingredients.

There's something else that players who are either breaking drug-tested policies or tempted should keep in mind: Birch says NFL testing will resume as soon as the lockout ends and/or a new CBA is reached.

"We'll be ready to go within a matter of hours," Birch said.

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