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On Le'Veon Bell, Risk, and Substances of Abuse

Le'Veon Bell's recent suspension and appeal give us plenty of information about what kind of risks he presents going forward. But are we taking away the appropriate lessons?

Hi, I'm Adam Harstad, and I hate players in the substances of abuse program. Not morally or personally, of course— in truth, I'm one of those hippie types who loves pretty much everyone and wants a world with nothing but joy and success. But I'm also someone whose job is analyzing fantasy value, and from a fantasy value standpoint, I think they're bad bets.

This is not a new or novel position for me. In 2013, after returning from a 4-game suspension, Justin Blackmon had 5/136/1 and 14/190/0 in his first two games. He was a 23-year-old top-5 NFL draft pick, and he was impossible to cover. Naturally, his value shot through the roof in dynasty leagues. Immediately after those two games, I wrote this:

Justin Blackmon is off to a spectacular start to the season, but like with Jimmy Graham, this level of production is not sustainable in the long term. Still, Blackmon has been showing off every bit of the talent that led to Jacksonville drafting him with a top-5 selection. Top-5 receivers have historically been players with very high potential rewards- A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Andre Johnson were all selected with top-5 picks. Julio Jones and Torry Holt were taken 6th overall. Still, while the reward is huge, the risk is as well. The other WRs selected in the top 5 since 2000 are Peter Warrick, Charles Rogers, and Braylon Edwards. Justin Blackmon looks well on his way towards joining that former group, but it's important to remember why Blackmon was serving his four-game suspension in the first place. By some reports, Justin Blackmon is already in stage 3 of the substance abuse program, which means any additional violations will incur a mandatory 1-year suspension. That's a major risk that is flying under the radar, and it has to be factored into his price. In leagues where I own Blackmon, I will be quietly making inquiries to see if anyone is willing to purchase him at a price that reflects all of his upside but none of his downside. I tend to embrace risk when building a fantasy team, but If I could get top-10 receiver prices for Blackmon today, I'd be happy with that.

Josh Gordon was having a good year to that point, but he hadn't yet entered orbit (He was 15th in points per game after week 7 in PPR leagues). He had also gotten his season-opening suspension reduced on appeal, suggesting there were extenuating circumstances and, therefore, less involved risk. As a result, my advice on him was to hold:

Also for what it's worth, Josh Gordan, in my mind, is 80% of Justin Blackmon. 80% of the production so far, 80% of the talent, but he only carries 80% of the risk, and he's only due for 80% of the regression. If I could get top-10 WR prices for Gordon, I'd gladly do that, too. I'm less optimistic with my chances, there, so I'd be more inclined to hold him and take on the risk. As I said, I tend to be pro-risk when building a roster, it's only when you can begin to trade an asset that is productive but risky for one that is equally productive but much less risky that trades start to make sense.

But after the season, when he finished as the #2 fantasy receiver with over 1700 yards from scrimmage in just 14 games, Gordon did start commanding top-10 prices. In fact, in dynasty startups he was usually one of the first two players drafted, and was nearly-universally considered part of the “top tier” of dynasty receivers— a tier of six players that also included Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, and Dez Bryant.

At that point, my Gordon skepticism kicked into high gear. I argued that people were once again failing to properly account for his risk, and should unequivocally not be part of the “top tier”. (I had Percy Harvin there, instead; nobody is perfect.)

I've been known to say that past suspensions predict future suspensions far better than past injuries predict future injuries. The reason for this is simple: some injuries indicate some sort of underlying issue, (think: Arian Foster's soft-tissue injuries), but some injuries are essentially just random results of a violent game (think: Keenan Allen's lacerated kidney). On the other hand, no one gets suspended randomly, so all are indicative of some underlying issue. You don't get busted for using marijuana unless you actually use marijuana.

Given this track record, this belief that the market continually underreacted to suspension risk, one would assume that I'm writing this to offer the same dire warnings for Le'Veon Bell. “Friends, subscribers, fantasy addicts, lend me your ears. I come to bury Le'Veon, not to praise him.”

Except I'm not. I'm just trying to establish my bona-fides before I say that this time is different.

Quantifying Risk

There's a bug in how we deal with risk, (and by “we” I don't mean “fantasy owners”, but “human beings”). We're really, really bad at it. At the edges, we have a strong tendency to round up to 100% or down to 0%. This is where we're assigning any value at all— most of the time we tend to consider it merely categorical. This player is “injury-prone”. This player is a “character risk”. This player is “safe”.

There are not risky and safe players. All players are risks, and those risks differ only in type and magnitude. One player may be less risky than another, but even Jerry Rice, coming off ten 1st-team All Pro awards in eleven years, finished a season with under 100 yards. Nobody is safe.

The reason I advocated selling Blackmon and Gordon isn't because they were risky, (because again, all players are risky), but because their price did not reflect the proper level of risk. Again, as I wrote, “when you can begin to trade an asset that is productive but risky for one that is equally productive but much less risky… trades start to make sense”.

In order to properly value risk, we must make an effort to quantify it. And in order to quantify suspension risk, we must understand the policy driving the suspensions. If you want, you can read the actual policy for yourself. If you'd rather not, you're in luck; I've read it so that you don't have to.

What the Substances of Abuse Policy is NOT For

One of my bedrock assumptions about the substances of abuse policy is that its purpose is not catching players who use drugs.

This belief is based on simple math; there is repeated testimony that a stunningly high percentage of the NFL population smokes marijuana. Former Detroit Lion Lomas Brown estimates it at over 50%, and claimed it was over 90% in the mid-80s. That same article mentions a CBS Sports report that found that 4 out of 10 draft-eligible prospects in 2012 failed a drug test in college, an ESPN report that about 70% of prospects at the combine admitted to smoking marijuana, and a 2009 report by the NCAA that nearly 27% of football players admitted to using marijuana in the past year.

Jamaal Anderson pegged the number at 40-50% in the mid-‘90s, but estimates it at 60% today, adding “That's bare minimum. That's because players today don't believe in the stigma that older people associate with smoking it. To the younger guys in the league now, smoking weed is a normal thing, like having a beer. Plus, they know that smoking it helps them with the concussions.”

In the same article, Mike Freeman conducted an informal poll of 16 players and 15 of them admitted to using marijuana. Freeman continues: “Interviews over the course of the past month with 16 current players revealed an NFL world where players who have not failed an NFL drug test, and therefore aren't subjected to multiple tests, smoke weed weekly after games and occasionally after tough regular-season practices. Some of these players said many of their teammates and opponents smoke marijuana three to four times a week, depending on the time of season and the physicality of practices and games.”

Scott Fujita was a bit more conservative with his estimate, saying that 30-50% of NFL players today smoke pot. Ricky Williams was more aggressive, putting it at 60-70%.

Unless you think this is a case of former players all exaggerating the figures to make themselves look more sympathetic when they admit to using, Mike Freeman reports that an NFL GM estimated 30-40% of an incoming draft class uses marijuana, which is “right in line with our league [average].”

We have a wide range of sources with direct knowledge of the situation telling us somewhere between 30 and 70% of current NFL players use marijuana recreationally, and that figure has been stable for decades. Just to make things easy, we'll assume it's about half of the league.

The first question we have might be “why is half of the league smoking pot?”, and Jake Plummer gives a pretty good answer. We commonly think of marijuana as a recreational drug like alcohol, but for football players, it can be much more. Plummer notes that research suggests the ingredients in marijuana can be effective painkillers. They suppress muscle spasms, and migraines. They're even an effective sleep aid. Plummer relates his own personal experiences and the transformational impact it's had on his life.

The second, and more pertinent question for our purposes, is “if half of the league is smoking pot, why are so few getting suspended for it?”, and this is where I come to my assertion that the purpose of the substances of abuse policy is not catching players who use substances of abuse.

To quote again from the Bleacher Report article:

How could so many players smoke marijuana and not get caught by the NFL, which tests for it?

The collective bargain agreement states that players not in the substance-abuse program due to a violation are subject to one test for substances of abuse, including marijuana, from April 20 through Aug. 9. But to save costs, one team union official explained, much of the testing is done during training camp because all of the players are in one place.

Then a player is not tested again until the following year. The only way that would change is if someone is stupid enough to smoke near, or during, that predictable testing window.

"You know when the test is," one player said, who is also a union official. "Once you pass it, you can do as much as you want all year."

If a player is in the testing program, the system becomes almost impossible to beat. Any player who is caught is then subject to testing up to 10 times per month.

What the Substances of Abuse Policy IS For

Instead of catching everyone who uses drugs, the substances of abuse policy is designed to catch everyone who has such a big problem that they can't stop using drugs. The initial test is once a year and telegraphed, making it ludicrously easy for most players to just stop smoking until they've been tested for the year. For the most part, it only catches the players who can't stop.

The penalty for a first failed test, meanwhile, is simply that you enter stage 1 of the program. Participation in stage 1 lasts for 90 days, at the end of which a player is either advanced to stage 2 or, if the medical director feels it is necessary, extended for a further 90 days before advancement to stage 2. Participation in stage 2 lasts for two years or two seasons, though a player can be discharged after as little as 12 months if the medical director feels it is appropriate.

Stage 1 and stage 2 merely subject the player to routine testing, (as opposed to the once per year faced by players with no failed tests), and they outline the punishments for failed tests. The punishments can vary based on when they occur (stage 1 vs. stage 2), and what they're for, (the first punishment for marijuana is about half as severe as for other controlled substances), but the first strike always shares a common feature: the punishment is always a fine with no missed time. Once a player completes stage 2, his record is cleared and he is treated like a player who never tested positive in the first place.

So now we're seeing several different types of marijuana users in the NFL. First, those who are regular users, but who have enough control to beat the one ludicrously-easy-to-beat test a year. Second, those who are regular users who fail the first test, but then have the self-control to stop smoking for two years until they're out of the program again. Third, those who are regular users who fail the first test, who then go on to fail a second test and receive a fine, but who discontinue use after that and eventually graduate from the program again.

Because of the confidentiality of the program, we never hear about any of these first three types of players. For all we know, anyone in the NFL could fall into one of these three categories. Maybe Tom Brady already has two strikes against him. Maybe Calvin Johnson retired because he was one failed test away from missing time. We simply have no way of knowing.

The final group are the ones we know about. These are players who failed the first, easy-to-beat test. And then they failed a second time when they knew they were subject to up to ten tests a month. And then, knowing what was at stake, they failed a third test, resulting in a suspension that is usually the public's first indication that there is any problem at all. The reason they are missing games isn't because they are smoking marijuana, but rather because they've now had three chances to stop, and have been unable to all three times.

This is why the 4-game suspension should be so concerning for fantasy purposes. If the player was unwilling or unable to stop the first three times, what makes us think they'll be able to stop the fourth? Or the fifth?

That 4-game suspension carries with it more bad news, too. At this point, a player is advanced to stage 3 of the substances of abuse program and the penalties really escalate. A first positive test for marijuana carries with it a 10-game suspension. A second marijuana test, or a first test for any other substance, demands “[banishment] from the NFL for a minimum period of one (1) calendar year”.

If that language sounds hyperbolic, please be aware that that's not on my part. The league really calls it “banishment”. They even have a subhead explaining what banishment entails in paragraph 1.5.3(b).

The worst part of stage 3 is that it's essentially a career-long sentence, (though provisions are made for a player to be evaluated for early discharge after 24 months). This is not a very comforting thought, that a player who has demonstrated a long track record of failed tests could at any point in the rest of his career suddenly be out for a season or more with absolutely no warning.

So Why Is Le'Veon Bell Different?

Now, so far I've outlined the most common path players take through the substances of abuse program, but it's not the only way a player can get in. While a failed test undoubtedly accounts for the majority of players in stage 1 or stage 2, there are two other ways into the program. The first is self-referral. The second way— the path that Le'Veon Bell took— is a behavioral referral.

What triggers a behavioral referral? According to the policy, anything “including but not limited to an arrest or conduct related to an alleged misuse of Substances of Abuse occurring up to two (2) football seasons prior to the Player's applicable scouting combine”.

Le'Veon Bell did not fail a drug test. He was able to beat the NFL's telegraphed “screener” test at least once in his rookie season. He didn't have known drug issues in his college days that would trigger automatic entry into the program. Instead, Bell was stopped by a police officer for driving under the influence.

This shows staggeringly poor judgment on his part, but when assessing risk, we're specifically concerned with whether he's going to fail drug tests in the future. And in this case, we have reason to believe that he's able to stop smoking long enough to beat the tests. Namely, that reason is because in the past he has demonstrated an ability to stop smoking long enough to beat the tests.

Le'Veon Bell's second suspension likewise did not result from a failed test. Instead, all parties acknowledge that the suspension was triggered by multiple missed tests. Under the policy, a missed test is the same as a failed test. (In some cases, it's worse; as I've said, positive tests for marijuana carry reduced penalties.)

But for practical purposes, a missed test is not a failed test. One possible explanation for the missed tests is that Bell skipped them because he knew he'd fail. But that's only one possible explanation, which means there exist other possibilities that don't hinge on Le'Veon Bell having smoked marijuana again.

Indeed, Bell argued that he changed his phone number and the league attempted to contact him for the tests on his old number. Perhaps this amounts to a 5th grader professing earnestly that no, his dog really DID eat his homework. But there's at least a chance that the story is true.

I assumed that Le'Veon Bell's appeal would clear up these possibilities. If his story was credible, his suspension would be eliminated. If his story was not credible, his suspension would be upheld. Instead, the appeal was… well, to be honest, it was weird.

Mike Tomlin initially said that the appeal would take place in the second week of August, a date that was later pinned down to August 18th. Then, on the 16th, reports surfaced that the appeal had yet to be scheduled. Despite this, the results of the appeal were still handed down on the 19th, as expected.

Aside from bizarre and conflicting reports about the appeal itself, the result doesn't really fit any of the stories we had surrounding the events. If Bell's story about changing his cell phone number is true, why did he remain suspended for three games? If the NFL didn't buy his argument, though, why does he remain in stage 2 of the substance abuse program?

To quantify the risk of re-offense, we're left reading the tea leaves and guessing at things that we can't possibly know. For instance, it's possible the league found Bell's story credible and believed that he wasn't smoking marijuana, but left the three-game suspension to protect their image, or to send a harsh message about following protocols. It's also possible that Bell is lying about not smoking marijuana and Goodell reduced his suspension under pressure from one of the most powerful and influential owners in the league. There are a lot of possible explanations that could fit the observed data.

In terms of ancillary evidence, Le'Veon Bell recently uploaded a video where he claimed he hadn't smoked marijuana since December of 2014. He quickly took that video down once he realized that his arrest was in August 2014, and he was effectively admitting he continued to smoke after that. Perhaps this unintentional admission makes his initial claim more credible— if he were going to lie, perhaps he'd have been more careful about it. (Historians sometimes use something called the “criterion of embarrassment”, where they assume embarrassing admissions are more likely to be true). On the other hand, perhaps the speed at which Bell deleted the video suggests he really was lying and doing a poor job of it.

Adding to the drama, two days after Bell's 4-game suspension was officially announced, it was reported that Bell completed the 15-month accelerated probation program he had been placed in after his initial arrest. The terms of his probation required “[abstaining] from drugs and alcohol, [completing] any recommended treatment and [taking] a safe driving class”.

It's unclear just what kind of recommended treatment that entailed. If recommended treatment included court-ordered drug tests, then Bell took them and passed them. It's also worth noting that this probation lines up well with his admission that he last smoked in December of 2014; his probation began on February 6th, 2015.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, as I said, risk must be treated as quantifiable and not categorical. Categorically, Le'Veon Bell finds himself in the same bucket as Josh Gordon, Justin Blackmon, and Martavis Bryant, players who have repeatedly run afoul of the substances of abuse policy.

But the future risk those players incur is that they'll fail a drug test, and to that end it is vitally important to note all parties seem to be in agreement that Le'Veon Bell has still never failed an NFL drug test. Maybe he's continued to smoke marijuana. Maybe he hasn't. But by any measure, his suspension risk going forward seems orders of magnitude less than that of Gordon or Bryant, two players who have failed, at a bare minimum, four drug tests each. (In Gordon's case, in particular, I count at least 10 drug-related incidents since October 2010.)

Whether he's still smoking marijuana or not, Le'Veon Bell is obviously at a heightened risk compared to the NFL population at large, even ignoring his injury history. But it's a question of how heightened the risk is. If owners in your league are treating him the same as Gordon or Bryant, I would argue that they are not reacting to the facts of the case and are, as a result, overrating the risk.

I don't know what the future holds for Le'Veon Bell. Due to (vitally important!) privacy rules, I don't even know what the past held for him. But I do know that fantasy football leagues every year are won by those who do the best job of quantifying and pricing risk, and based on my reading of the situation, I believe Bell's risk of further suspension is currently being overrated.