The NBA on Thursday suspended Brooklyn Nets forward Wilson Chandler for 25 games due to Chandler testing positive for Ipamorelin. Ipamorelin is one of nearly 200 substances listed under the category of “steroids and performance-enhancing drugs (SPEDS)” in the NBA and National Basketball Players’ Association jointly administered drug testing policy.
Under the policy, a player who tests positive for a SPED receives an automatic 25-game suspension, which amounts to 31% of the 82-game regular season. A second offense leads to a 55-game suspension (67%). A third offense triggers a minimum two-year ban from the NBA.
The policy, which attempts to balance safeguarding the sport with player privacy interests, also extensively details how testing is conducted. In brief, urine samples are randomly collected from players as many as four times during the season and up to twice during the offseason. In addition, if either the NBA or NBPA obtains information which leads it to develop reasonable cause that a player is using a prohibited substance, either can petition a neutral, independent expert to authorize additional testing of the player.
This is the first suspension for Chandler. The 32-year-old has 12 years of service in the NBA, during which he has played for the New York Knicks, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia Sixers and Los Angeles Clippers. He is a journeyman player who is expected to provide minutes off the bench for the Nets. Chandler’s salary for ’19-’20 is $2.6 million, but he’ll lose a portion of it due to the suspension.
NBA players seldom test positive for SPEDs. As Bill Simmons tweeted Thursday, only nine NBA players (including Chandler) have tested positive for SPEDs over the last dozen years. Considering that there are roughly 450 players in the NBA at any time, the percentage of NBA players who test positive for SPEDs is minuscule. Only two players, Jodie Meeks and Joakim Noah, tested positive during the previous two seasons. To date, Noah and Rashard Lewis are the only NBA players who tested positive for SPEDs who also played in All-Star games during their careers.
Suspicions that many NBA players are using SPEDs
The rarity of SPED suspensions coupled with the muscular appearance of many NBA players has led some to speculate that far more NBA players use SPEDS than who test positive. In addition to building muscle, SPEDs can help athletes recuperate. Such a benefit would be advantageous to NBA players over the course of a long season.
It’s also thought that many athletes deceive tests by engaging in so-called “microdosing.” Microdosing refers to taking enough of a prohibited substance to provide a competitive benefit but at a level low enough to exit the body in a short time and thus not register on a test. When guided by experts, microdosing can be timed to provide substantial competitive advantages.
According to this line of thinking, NBA players possess the financial wherewithal and career incentives to pay for designer drugs that evade detection, particularly when those drugs are taken in small dosages.
This reasoning has proven true in other sports, most notably baseball. Over the last few decades, numerous baseball players have been linked to clinics, including BALCO and Biogenesis, that sold performance-enhancing substances designed to match a player’s body chemistry. NBA players possess the same financial means to seek similar treatments.
Reasons to be cautious about those suspicions
There are reasons to be skeptical of the suspicion that numerous NBA players use SPEDs.
First, while no drug testing system is fool-proof and while NBA players are not tested through blood samples, the joint NBA-NBPA testing policy is comprehensive. Not only are nearly 200 substances listed as prohibited SPEDs, but another 24 substances are listed as prohibited diuretics. Diuretics have a number of uses, one of which is as a masking agent.
The policy also calls for as many as six random tests—meaning a test where a player has no advance notice—during the year. Additional tests can be ordered if there is reasonable suspicion of drug use. Violating the policy also leads to significant, and costly, penalties. In short, the policy frequently tests players, looks for numerous substances and imposes heavy penalties on offenders. At least in theory, that combination ought to deter players.
Second, it’s in neither the interests of the NBA nor the NBPA for players to use SPEDs. Some prohibited substances are illegal or require a physician’s prescription. The NBA does not want its brand tarnished by a scandal of players using performance-enhancing substances nor the health dangers that would accompany such use. The NBA, after all, is in the process of expanding its consumer base on a global level. The integrity of the sport is critical to that goal. Especially considering that NBA players net essentially half of basketball-related income under the collective bargaining agreement, the NBPA likely feels the same.
It’s thus safe to say that both the league and union want players to be law-abiding and healthy. It would be unwise for the league and union to “look the other way” when a drug scandal would be damaging to both. Their incentive is to prevent a scandal from happening in the first place. Legitimate testing techniques constitute one key preventative measure.
Third, SPEDs sometimes trigger side-effects that would be detrimental for playing basketball. While they may help a player become more muscular and recuperate faster, they can also rob a player of quickness and coordination and make him more susceptible to injury, muscle cramps and dehydration. Of course, those risks haven’t stopped elite runners and cyclists—who like basketball players rely on speed and endurance—from using SPEDs. Still, these types of risks might be less worrisome for athletes in other sports linked to SPEDs. For instance, the ability of a baseball player to put on muscle—and hit more home runs—has been shown to bring about more lucrative careers.
Fourth, while a number of baseball players were implicated by name in U.S. Department of Justice and other law enforcement investigations into the illegal sale and distribution of steroids, those investigations have not led to the naming of NBA players. That’s not to say no NBA players were linked. Porter Fischer, the whistleblower from the Biogenesis scandal, reportedly claimed that the clinic treated a wide range of athletes including pro tennis, pro boxing, MMA, NCAA and NBA players. The claim, however, did not lead to the naming of any players beyond those employed by Major League Baseball clubs.
Is it possible that NBA players are using SPEDs at a significantly higher rate than testing results indicate? Yes. The market often moves faster than the regulator, and a combination of sophisticated designer drugs, masking agents and microdosing probably could outsmart even the most scrutinizing test. Yet as discussed above, there are also reasons to be wary of speculation that lacks actual evidence. Lastly, if either the NBA or NBPA believes that players are using SPEDs, both have incentives to collectively bargain more rigorous testing.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.