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The Cost of Drugs in the NFL

Athletes playing in professional sports leagues often seek every available opportunity to gain a competitive edge. With so much pressure placed on winning, performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) such as steroids present a tempting shortcut to elevate performance; prescription drugs such as painkillers enable endurance through painful injuries; and recreational use of substances such as alcohol and marijuana provide an escape from the stress of playing on a national platform, where much is at stake.

Leagues such as the NFL have been forced to deal with substance abuse since their inception. Since 2002, for example, there have been 945 substance-related game suspensions and $68,203,788 issued in fines in the NFL alone. We used Spotrac’s data on game suspensions and fines for substance use violations to both visualize drug abuse in the NFL over the past 14 years and explore its lasting consequences for teams and players alike.

Game suspensions hurt the success of both teams and players. The Carolina Panthers have the highest amount of suspensions since 2002 at 74 games. The Green Bay Packers take the dubious honor of second place at 62, followed closely by the Washington Redskins (60), the Cincinnati Bengals (59), and the Cleveland Browns (53). The teams with the least amount of game suspensions are the Pittsburgh Steelers (6), the Buffalo Bills (6), the New Orleans Saints (7), the Chicago Bears (7), and the Philadelphia Eagles (8).

The team with the highest amount of unknown substance–related suspensions is the Carolina Panthers at 50. Many substance violations are not publicly disclosed, as the NFL tries to keep much of this information concealed. There are even $500,000 fines for people who violate a player’s confidentiality when it comes to test results, diagnoses, and treatment.

Game suspensions for all substance-related violations have increased dramatically since 2002. The largest spike and subsequent drop happened from 2009 to 2011, with the amount of suspended games jumping from 24 to 129, falling to 51, then spiking again to 134. The highest amount of suspensions occurred in 2014 with 188 games. While the graph drops in 2015 to 89, it’s good to remember that the year is far from over, and the NFL season only began in September.

The current substance abuse policy dates back to 2006 – the year when Commissioner Roger Goodell was chosen – and was amended in 2010. In 2011, the league and players union agreed that a new drug policy was needed, but it wasn’t enacted until 2014, when the two sides finally agreed on a system to overhaul both the substance abuse policy and the PED policy.

The 2014 update amends the policy significantly: The NFL now tests for human growth hormone (HGH) – which the MLB has tested for since 2013; it also utilizes both a higher marijuana threshold and stricter DUI program and classifies amphetamines under the substance abuse policy rather than the PED policy. The idea is to both crack down on drug abuse of all forms and give players a chance to seek help, as drug abuse often leads to addiction – a progressive and fatal disease.

It shouldn’t be surprising that NFL players – like the rest of us – can succumb to problems with substance abuse and dependency. Their need to consistently perform at an elite athletic level, as well as to function both on and off the field in their roles of affluent, high profile, almost superhero-like public figures, can certainly contribute to a convergence of pressures that might lead to them seeking the “help” of a number of substances. Unfortunately, as role models, these scenarios may perpetuate an image to impressionable young fans that substance use is normal, or even advantageous. As many players have dutifully recounted in their struggles with drug use and abuse, it’s anything but a glamorous lifestyle. Luckily, there’s a level playing field when it comes to substance rehabilitation efforts. Both superstar and average Joe alike can benefit from treatment for drugs and alcohol. If you’re bearing the weight of a substance abuse problem, call  to find out more about rehab options.

When the yearly suspensions are broken down by violation, several substances stand out as prevalent offenders: unknown substance–related violations and performance-enhancing drugs. Unknown violations have increased overall between 2010 and 2015, steadily rising from 2011 to 2014. The NFL’s policy of nondisclosure and recent implementation of $500,000 fines might have something to do with this increase. Performance-enhancing drugs include a spectrum of substances, everything from anabolic agents such as testosterone to HGH and beta-2 antagonists.

These drugs are intended to treat specific health conditions under strict medical attention. However, some athletes abuse these substances to gain a competitive edge, even though these drugs often do more harm than good.

The abuse of performance enhancing drugs, including that of steroids, might not exactly resemble the use of more conventionally thought to be addictive substances, but the parallels can be striking. Both can result in a difficult-to-resist compulsion to continue use – even when confronted with the undeniably negative impact their use elicits. Furthermore, both can doubtlessly wreak havoc on the health – both mental and physical – of the user. If the health and wellbeing of you or someone you know is suffering as a result of steroid abuse (or any type of substance use) call  to inquire about drug treatment and recovery options.

Marijuana-related suspensions have grown in the past five years, although they might either level off or drop with the NFL’s new policy that raises the THC threshold from 15 ng/ml to 35 ng/mg. They also added more steps to the intervention process before an athlete is suspended.

Large fines on teams and players are also part of the NFL’s penalizing policy to deter drug abuse. If a player is found to have broken the league’s substance abuse policy, the fine amount is deducted from that player’s salary. That money is then donated either to retired player programs or to other charitable causes as agreed upon by the NFL and the NFL Players Association.

As a whole, the Miami Dolphins have accrued the average highest fine amount since 2002: a staggering $5,116,876.50. The Denver Broncos come second at $2,917,262.17, followed by the Cleveland Browns ($2,439,271.75), the Arizona Cardinals ($2,221,568.33), and the Cincinnati Bengals ($1,875,491.50). The teams with the lowest fines are the Chicago Bears ($79,411.00), the Pittsburgh Steelers ($145,709.00), the Houston Texans ($167,588.00), the St. Louis Rams ($178,159.95), and the Tennessee Titans ($178,675.50).

While these fines may not seem as momentous in the context of professional football, the idea is that such million-dollar penalties hurt teams in terms of the players’ impacted salaries and negative press coverage. These consequences, on top of suspended games, encourage teams to take care of the substance abuse to avoid more fines. A fine sends a very clear message: There is no room for drug abuse in the NFL.

Fines issued for violations of the league’s substance abuse policy have increased across the board since 2002, correlating with the increase of game suspensions over the last 14 years. Again, this could indicate one of two things: Either drug abuse is an increasing issue among professional football players, or the NFL is taking the problem more seriously with an increasing amount of applications of its updated policy.

Fines are part of the deterrent process to treat substance abuse in the NFL – and hopefully, penalizing teams for allowing drug use forces these teams to provide interventions and treatment for players before the problem escalates.

The consequences of drug abuse can be costly for professional football players and non-players alike, ending careers and denting finances. Don’t wait for the costs of substance abuse – financial, health related, or to any other area of your life – to accrue. Take early action against a budding substance abuse problem – call  to find out how drug and alcohol rehabilitation can help.

Interestingly, alcohol has the highest average fine at $587,154.53, although PEDs and unknown-substance violations have been much more prevalent in the league. The substance abuse policy tests blood alcohol content in the NFL drug panel, scrutinizing players who have a BAC over or equal to 0.06 g/dl. However, the policy adds a disclaimer: Alcohol is prohibited “only if a player’s treatment plan explicitly prohibits alcohol,” but all players currently in intervention stages are tested for alcohol for clinical monitoring purposes.

Unknown substances cover a large number of prohibited substances, but their average fine in this context is $474,345.38. Marijuana, with an average fine of $320,118.67, becomes an issue when players are tested and have consumed an amount of THC equal to or over 35 ng/ml, as per the new 2014 policy. However, it’s important to remember that the regular consumption of any drugs of abuse can often affect both the stress and reward systems of the brain, precipitating the progression of addiction.

For more information about alcohol and drug abuse and addiction – and to locate effective treatment and rehabilitation for all substance use disorders – visit

Some players have been fined more than others since 2002. Dion Jordan takes first place, with fines adding up to $6,920,634. Daryl Washington comes next with $3,564,706 total fines, followed closely by D.J. Williams with $3,026,468 in fines, Tanard Jackson with $2,890,282 in fines, and Josh Gordon with $2,648,896 in fines. At $5,818,395, Dion Jordan has the highest fines out of any player for unknown substances since 2002. Robert Mathis has the highest fines related to PEDs at $2,058,822; Wes Welker has the highest for illegal drugs at $941,176 and Tanard Jackson for marijuana at $1,460,282.

While these fines may seem like a slap on the wrist in comparison to these players’ average earnings, they still make a sizeable dent in their finances. For example, Dion Jordan’s fines over the years add up to $6,920,634; his annual salary with the Miami Dolphins is $5,143,077, which means his fines have burned through not only one year’s worth of salary, but an additional $1,777,557.


Substance abuse doesn’t discriminate, impacting finances and ending careers of players and non-players alike. While suspensions and fines in the NFL are a good step toward deterring drug abuse in the league, its player interventions are perhaps the most crucial aspect of its substance use policy. Treatment is essential to fighting drug abuse and addiction. If you’re concerned about your own substance abuse, contact today to find treatment resources that will meet your needs.

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