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Understanding the “unrecognized substance” quirk in Julian Edelman’s positive PED test

Understanding the “unrecognized substance” quirk in Julian Edelman’s positive PED test




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At first blush, the report that Patriots receiver Julian Edelman‘s positive PED test was “triggered by a substance that wasn’t immediately recognizable” created an opening for thinking that the NFL has yet to conclude that Edelman took a banned substance, and that the NFL ultimately may conclude that he didn’t. Closer inspection of the PED policy paints a different picture.


There’s no provision in the PED policy that transforms a “substance that wasn’t immediately recognizable” into a positive result. Instead, a four-game suspension arises from a positive test for an anabolic agent that comes from the laundry list of 71 specific substances or that falls within the potentially broad catch-all of “other substances with a similar chemical structure and similar biological effect(s).”


That’s the more likely (and likely more accurate) description of the situation. It’s not that Edelman’s urine sample showed the presence of some substance that medical science is incapable of identifying; it’s that the sample had a substance with “a similar chemical structure and similar biological effect(s)” as one of the 71 specific anabolic agents listed in the PED policy.


Whatever it was, it presumably showed up in both the “A” bottle and “B” bottle, which are created when the urine sample is split into two separate samples, in order to allow for two separate tests. And even if the NFL’s medical experts haven’t specifically fit the substance within any of the 71 anabolic agents listed in the policy, it wouldn’t have been a positive test unless the unrecognized substance has “a similar chemical structure and similar biological effect(s)” to an anabolic agent.


Logic points to an anabolic agent because of the length of the suspension (a positive test for a masking agent or similar substance triggers only a two-game suspension), and because stimulants don’t fall under the PED policy in the offseason. Common sense points to the reality that if the NFL truly had no idea what the substance was, the outcome wouldn’t have been a positive test — because the PED policy does not contemplate any discipline for a player based simply upon the fact that there’s something in the urine that can’t be identified.


It’s also possible that the unrecognized substance came from an effort to adulterate the sample, which provides separate grounds for discipline. In those cases, however, the discipline may be enhanced, in order to deter efforts to manipulate the outcome via an additive aimed at scrubbing the sample after it is provided. (Masking agents, in contrast, are taken by the player to hide the presence of the banned substance in the urine.)


Here’s the bottom line: The NFL doesn’t immediately dub a sample with an “unrecognized substance” a positive test. If it’s a positive test, that means the NFL discovered something in the urine that indicates PED use. And while Edelman will still have appeal rights, the fact that the substance doesn’t neatly fit within the scope of one of the 71 listed anabolic agents is irrelevant if the unrecognized substance has “similar chemical structure and similar biological effect(s).”


The fact that the test was positive points to a substance that fits within that catch-all language, and the characterization of this as a positive of “a substance that wasn’t immediately recognizable” seems like a not-so-subtle effort to create the impression that Edelman didn’t ingest a banned substance. The circumstances suggest that the NFL believes he did.