Quinn Smith’s positive test raises questions about if the CFL’s drug policy is tough enough

55 Yard Line

The news Thursday that CFL draft prospect Quinn Smith had tested positive for the banned performance-enhancing drug stanozolol could affect his draft stock, but it also has wider implications for the CFL. In particular, it raises questions about if the league's current drug policy has a harsh enough penalty for first-time violators. At the moment, the only penalty for a first offence is being placed in the league's drug-testing program and being tested repeatedly. While penalties escalate significantly for subsequent positive tests, it's unclear that what's essentially a warning for a first offence is enough to deter CFL players and prospects from taking banned substances at least until they get caught once.

For a first positive test, the penalty is only subjecting the player to mandatory testing and providing him with counselling. Players' identities aren't even usually revealed, which is why there haven't been many reports of positive CFL drug tests. The identity revelation happened in this case because Smith admitted it, but it probably would have happened anyway; he was tested before he became a CFL player, and positive results for CIS andjunior football players usually involve naming names. Still, for most CFL players, a violation won't even get their name in the paper.

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CFL penalties do get more severe from there, with the second offence triggering a three-game suspension and the player being named, the third triggering a year-long suspension, and the fourth triggering a lifetime ban, and those all seem suitable deterrents to continual use, but it's debatable if there's enough in place to stop someone from using performance-enhancing drugs until they're caught a first time. The policy's intention to educate and reform is laudable, but it doesn't necessarily provide suitable incentives not to use drugs. Arguably, a prospect could use banned substances to get themselves on the CFL radar, then stop once they got caught and never even face missing a game.

In Smith's particular case, there's no evidence that this was a thought-out plan rather than an honest mistake. His case does raise questions about the CFL's rather minimal first-offence penalty, though, as a prospect could potentially set out to game the system, using performance-enhancing drugs to get himself on the draft radar and then stopping once busted. Perhaps that will come up in the ongoing collective bargaining discussions. It's notable that CIS has much more severe penalties, typically a two-year ban; going that harsh likely wouldn't make sense for the CFL, but making a first offence punishable by a one-game suspension or something might help. (Oddly enough, it's that CIS penalty that may wind up affecting Smith the most; despite having a year of eligibility left, he'll face a two-year CIS ban, so if he doesn't make a CFL team this year, he doesn't have the typical backup option of returning to the university ranks to develop for another year.)

It's notable that while there haven't been a lot of positive tests in the CFL (drug stories in that league tend to be about players being caught with them, not any result of testing, but it may just be that the policy has only found first-time violators so far and kept their identities secret), there are plenty in the CIS ranks. When I looked into this in 2008, there had been 47 positive violations found in CIS drug tests since 1990, 36 of which came from football players. There have been substantially more since then, including nine positive tests amongst 62 players at Waterloo in 2010 (including a precedent-setting HGH one), many of which involved anabolic steroids; that resulted in the suspension of Waterloo's football program for a year. 2013 saw one CIS player test positive for a drug that could be used to enhance performance (tamoxifen, which can be used to help recover from steroid cycles), and a junior football player also tested positive for anabolic steroids. (There was also one CIS and one junior football cannabis case, but as noted in the Kory Sheets discussion, that's largely irrelevant to the CFL, which doesn't test for non-performance-enhancing drugs.)

Thus, CIS football isn't exactly overrun with drugs, but it's not like they're unknown at that level either. If the CFL wants to dissuade prospects from using performance-enhancing drugs, stiffer penalties for a first violation might be a good step. There's no need to go as far as CIS does and start banning players for years, but there's a case to be made that the CFL's first step is too lenient, perhaps incentivizing players to use PEDs to help boost their draft stock at least until they're caught the first time. It's not clear that anyone is actively taking that approach, but that's certainly not a message the league wants to send. With that in mind, it could well be worth at least contemplating stiffer penalties for first-time offenders.

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