Unreported irregularities in testing process led to Richard Sherman’s appeal victory

SEATTLE – After more than a month of fighting the NFL over a proposed four-game suspension, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has won his appeal hearing, and he will not be suspended at all. Sherman tweeted out the news on Thursday, and that news was later confirmed by several sources.

"My lawyer called me and told me, and then I told the guys -- they were pretty excited," Sherman said on Thursday afternoon. "The coaches were excited, and it was a sigh of relief for the whole team. Just to know that was done and over with, and we could move on from here."

As he has throughout the process, Sherman again denied taking Adderall, or any other performance-enhancing drug.

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The second-year cornerback traveled to St. Louis last Friday to appeal a four-game suspension for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy that was handed down in late November. While teammate Brandon Browner started serving his suspension right away, Sherman wanted to fight his. Though both players were suspended after testing positive for Adderall, Sherman saw his case a little differently.

In his Friday appeal, Sherman attested that the cup with his urine specimen leaked, which forced the person collecting the sample to use a second cup underneath the first one. Thus, Sherman argued, the presence of the second cup (the seal on which was broken) violated the chain of custody requirements for a fair test.

Sherman's attorney, Maurice Suh, released the following statement:

“We are very pleased that the hearing officer recognized that the egregious errors that occurred with Mr. Sherman’s collection required overturning the NFL’s discipline. Mr. Sherman provided honest testimony about a severely flawed process, and the hearing officer found him to be a credible man. We couldn’t be happier for Richard, and we were thrilled to help him and the union present a very strong case.”

Suh also spoke with Yahoo! Sports on Thursday afternoon.

"We didn't release any information about the adverse finding," he said. "We believe that the adverse finding should have been confidential until the process was completed."

Yahoo! Sports obtained a copy of the decision, and the verdict was indeed affected most by not only the collection process, but also by the collector's failure to communicate the irregularities to his supervisor at the time.

"It was a weird day, and a weird testing procedure," Sherman said. "A lot of things went wrong on that day. And that's why the results came out the way they did, because he made mistakes. If it wasn't for that, there would have been no positive test. There was nothing else to it."

Sherman, who testified on his own behalf with Suh present, said that on Sept. 17, Mark Cook, the urine sample collector, met Sherman at the Seahawks' facility for the test.  Sherman made himself available on his day off -- the Monday after Seattle's win over the Dallas Cowboys -- to take the test. Sherman made Cook aware that the first sample cup was leaking, and both Sherman and Cook testified that Cook transferred the sample from the leaking cup to a new one. Sherman says that Cook left his side during the actual testing process; Cook said that he did not.

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Sherman raised the issue that there were several other cups in the area, and that some had been used. Also, when Sherman was asked to sign the agreement via electronic device, the consent language was not visible, and Sherman said that he never would have signed it given the irregularities. Cook disputed this. In addition, on the Athletes Control & Custody form, the pH levels of the sample were inconsistent with what was received by the testing lab.

Most importantly, Cook did not tell his company at the time that there had been an irregularity in the testing process per testimony; he did not tell anyone until his supervisor asked him in October. And since the NFL's drug policy states that a confirmation test must be done by a different technician after any positive test, and Cook did both tests, this was a further violation of the process.

Sherman stated that the irregularities led to a violation of the testing process, and the results should be thrown out. The NFL Management Council, represented by Kevin Manara, argued that the positive result was the only material issue.

In his ruling, Robert E. Wallace, Jr. of Thompson Coburn LLP, stated that the pH levels were a mere technicality, and would not have swung the case. Regarding the consent language, Wallace ruled that while the player is responsible for knowing what he is signing, Cook also failed to document the procedure.

As far as the "two technicians" issue, the NFLMC argued that it would be impractical to take two technicians on site for every test, but Wallace took issue with the ambiguity of the language in the policy.  As Wallace wrote, "The protection is to insure that if there is a mistake in the evaluation, it would not be repeated by allowing a same scientist to conduct or review the findings for a second time."

We asked Suh about this, and it's clear that the NFL was not following its own policies.

"To show you how wrong that assertion was -- the NFL proposed the [two-technician] rule to the NFLPA, and the NFLPA agreed," Suh said. "That rule originally came from the WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] code, and the WADA code requires different technicians. All the WADA laboratories require different technicians. So, to say that it's impractical is wrong. Now, recently, the WADA rule changed, so that they could have the same technicians test the A and B samples. But the NFL rule didn't change. Nonetheless, for the NFL to say that it was impossible or impractical for different technicians to handle the A and B samples is wrong, because for years and years, the WADA labs did exactly that."

And as Wallace intimated in his ruling, the Sherman case could -- and should -- have the NFL Players' Association asking some serious questions about how these tests are administered.

The case turned in Sherman's favor based on the collection process, Cook's negligence in not telling his supervisor about the irregularities, and Cook contradicting himself during the appeal hearing. At first, Cook said that he had not experienced a leaking cup, and would not classify this event as ordinary. Cook later said that the leaking cup "did not rise to the level of it being a big deal and having to include it in the report." Wallace wrote that this omission raised serious questions regarding the events of the day.

Sherman told a group of reporters this week that he would sue the NFL if he did not win.

The news is huge for the 10-5 Seahawks, who didn't know if they'd have Sherman -- who might be the game's best cornerback -- for their playoff run. Now, they'll have Sherman and Browner back to start, and Jeremy Lane, who played very well in Browner's absence, available for slot duty.

“I’m still here with a vengeance," Sherman concluded. "I just go out there and play hard with my guys. You can’t do anything without the great teammates we have. I can say I play with a vengeance all I want, and it wouldn’t be for anything if I didn't have such a great offense, and so many great players around such as Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, and all of those guys.  I’m happy to get the chance to be playing with those guys, and when Brandon Browner comes back, we’ll be reunited.”

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