Is the NFL targeting anthem protestor Eric Reid with excessive drug testing?

Oliver Connolly
The Guardian

The Panthers safety says he’s been chosen for random post-game drug tests an extraordinary seven times in 11 weeks. Just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean the NFL’s not out to get him

<span class="element-image__caption">Panthers safety <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/26641/" data-ylk="slk:Eric Reid">Eric Reid</a> says he’s been drug tested seven times in 11 weeks since his return to the NFL</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Mike McCarn/AP</span>
Panthers safety Eric Reid says he’s been drug tested seven times in 11 weeks since his return to the NFL Photograph: Mike McCarn/AP

Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid has been drug tested seven times in 11 weeks since his return to the NFL. And he has been on the receiving end of a number of what we will politely describe as questionable penalties.

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Reid believes something nefarious is at play. “It doesn’t feel very random,” he told the Charlotte Observer after his seventh post-game test. Questionable penalty calls have been accompanied by Reid tweeting: “adding to the file”.

Is Reid really the target of a campaign by the league’s head office, and by extension team owners, to systematically remove him from the NFL? Or is he truly the victim of bad luck and randomness?

The fact we even have to entertain the question is in and of itself extraordinary.

Think about what Reid is suggesting: that the league is coordinating an effort to circumvent its independent drug testing system in order to target an individual for retribution.

Tension between Reid and the league has been mounting for years.

Reid has lambasted Roger Goodell, the NFL’s commissioner, and franchise owners for over two seasons. He was the first of dozens of NFL players to join Colin Kaepernick in either kneeling, sitting or raising a fist during pre-game anthems to protest police brutality and systemic racism starting in 2016.

Reid continued to protest throughout 2017, while Kaepernick was excommunicated from the league.

Like Kaepernick, Reid spent all of the 2018 offseason unsigned, despite being one of the league’s better starting safeties. Like Kaepernick, he filed a collusion case against the league. Unlike Kaepernick, he was snapped up by the Panthers when injuries evaporated their secondary. His collusion case is still ongoing.

It is Reid’s belief that league is looking to mount public pressure on him to drop the case.

Two things can be true at once: Reid has a persecution complex, and Reid is being persecuted. When your livelihood is endangered as Reid’s was, and when you’re under fire from people as powerful as the president of the United States, it’s reasonable to see bogeymen around every corner.

Being tested seven times in 11 weeks isn’t impossible under the NFL’s drug program. But it is statistically improbable.

Every player in the league – active roster, practice squad – is subject to one mandatory test per league year. Reid was not on a roster this offseason, so it’s easy to deduce that one test was inevitable during his first couple of weeks in Carolina. Being tested six more times in resulting weeks, however, feels more than a little suspect.

“You have [about] the same probability of flipping a heads nine times in a row as he is being tested six times in 11 weeks,” Nick Kapoor, an adjunct professor of mathematics at Fairfield University, told SI.com. That would be .195% of a chance for those keeping score at home.

It’s important to note here how the league handles its drug policy, both its performance enhancing and recreational drug tests. The testing is overseen by an independent administrator: Dr John Lombardo. Lombardo is paid by both the league and the union, and each entity has the power to pull the plug on the partnership whenever it sees fit.

Players are not tested by name. Instead, a database houses a unique ID for every player in the league. Ten players from each team are selected for testing each week, which can be administered at any point during the week, not just post-game.

Players have long had suspicions about the randomness of the league’s tests. Ex-Colts punter Pat McAfee was routinely tested after propelling one of his 60-yard bombs. He once received a “random” test after tweeting about 420, a national marijuana holiday.

And it has always felt like more than mere coincidence that a player who has made a distinctive, out-of-character play during a game just so happened to receive the post-game order. You know, like a punter laying one of the biggest hits of the season.

Reid’s insinuations are different. They are more insidious. This is about payback, not fair play. When asked whether the seven tests would form a part of his pending grievance case against the league, Reid responded, “duly noted.”

There are four possible reasons Reid has been tested at such an unlikely rate:

  • It is random. The chance may be a fraction of a percentage. But, you know the saying, you’re telling me there’s a chance.

  • Reid hasn’t been tested seven times. He is lying or is mistaken.

  • Reid has unwittingly outed himself as being a part of the NFL’s substance abuse program, something the league protects with more vigor than Facebook and your personal data. Players who’re already in the NFL’s drug program are subject to more routine tests.

  • The NFL has gamed the system, either in concert with the independent tester and the players’ union or above their heads. The goal: to end Reid’s career or mount enough pressure that he drops his collusion case.

Option one is plausible but highly unlikely. Reid has no motive for option two.

That leaves us with the final two. Reid has publicly denied failing any drug test in his career.

Option four seems better suited for the plot of a terrible Hulu original series than the handiwork of the biggest, baddest sports league in the country. The risks don’t seem worth the reward.

Colin Kaepernick has been blackballed by the league. It is willing to take that fight to court. Reid had already filed against the league prior signing in Carolina. Wouldn’t Park Avenue take that to court, too, rather than engaging in a layered conspiracy that would leave team owners in legal jeopardy?

“I have a collusion case against the NFL,” Reid said last week. “This is something that doesn’t surprise me from them. It’s supposed to be random. It’s obviously not. I’m not surprised about it. Even though it seems crazy on the outside looking in, and it is, I’m not surprised.”

It’s time for the Panthers and the NFL Players Association to take a leadership role. Let’s find out how crazy the idea is.

The pair needs to apply public pressure on the NFL to further explain this statistical anomaly. Carolina hasn’t even issued a generic press release on the matter. We’re at seven tests and a bunch of penalties and counting. As far as the team seems concerned, everything with Reid, on and off-the-field, is above board.

They’ve abdicated their responsibilities. Right now, Reid is alone on an island. He couldn’t hold back a head shake and smile when questioned about the abnormality of the situation. “I know what I’m dealing with,” he said.

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