For the second time in 12 days, a top player on an NBA team has been suspended 25 games for violating the league’s anti-drug program. And, for the second time, the player intends to challenge the legality of the suspension on grounds that he’s not responsible.
On Tuesday, the NBA announced that Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins tested positive for Growth Hormone Releasing Peptide-2, a drug that is also known as pralmorelin. Article XXXIII of the collective bargaining agreement prohibits nearly 200 steroids and performance-enhancing drugs (SPEDs). Pralmorelin is on that lengthy list.
Detectable in urine samples, pralmorelin increases the body’s level of growth hormone. In turn, pralmorelin helps an athlete enlarge his or her exercise capacity, add lean muscle mass and reduce body fat.
Pralmorelin is known in the cycling world. Competitive cyclists have been caught using it and faced suspensions. Pralmorelin is banned by the International Olympic Committee’s World Anti-Doping Agency.
Collins, 22, has the ignominious distinction of becoming the first NBA player to face discipline for pralmorelin. His suspension began Tuesday night when the Hawks hosted the San Antonio Spurs. Collins will lose $610,582 in salary. However, as explained below, Collins’s appeal could lead to a reduction in suspended games and an accompanying reduction in forfeited salary.
Alongside guard Trae Young, Collins is one of two emerging Hawks stars. The former Wake Forest Demon Deacon leads the Hawks in rebounding (8.8), blocked shots (2.0) and minutes (32.2) per game. He is also the Hawks' second-leading scorer (17.0 per game) behind Young. Collins’s absence from the Hawks lineup will be highly disruptive to head coach Lloyd Pierce and his staff.
The Collins suspension comes on the heels of the NBA suspending Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton for 25 games. Ayton tested positive for a banned diuretic. Athletes sometimes use diuretics as masking agents to hide the presence of SPEDs.
Ayton appealed his suspension. Collins plans to do the same. And, like Ayton, Collins doesn’t dispute the test result. Both players have adopted the same core legal argument: deny knowing, or having reason to know, that the prohibited substance was in their system.
To that point, Collins has released a statement of apology that resembles one released by Ayton. Collins expresses regret to his team and fans but stresses that he has “always been incredibly careful” about the foods and drinks he consumes. While Collins acknowledges that he ingested a supplement, he insists that, “unbeknownst” to him, the supplement was “contaminated with an illegal component.”
Ayton, who is awaiting the result of his appeal, offered a similar explanation on Oct. 25. At the time, Ayton minimized his drug test result as merely reflecting “an unintentional mistake.” Along those lines, Ayton emphasized that he was “completely unaware of” the prohibited substance.
Pursuant to Article XXXIII, a grievance arbitrator, who is neutral and independent, hears player appeals for SPEDS and diuretic test results. The arbitrator can sustain a suspension, reduce it or vacate it altogether. An appealing player is assisted by the National Basketball Players’ Association.
In order to convince the arbitrator, the player faces a high burden of persuasion. He must prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that “he bears no significant fault or negligence” for the test result. In that same vein, the player must offer sufficient evidence to corroborate that he “did not know or suspect, and could not reasonably have known or suspected, even with the exercise of considerable caution and diligence, that he was taking, ingesting, applying, or otherwise using” a prohibited substance.
As a result of this high standard, a player who simply argues “I had no idea this would happen, you’ve got to believe me, I’d never do anything like this” would lose his appeal. Establishing an absence of bad intent is not enough. The player must also demonstrate that the manner in which he ingested a substance would not have given an ordinary NBA player in his position reasonable grounds to suspect he might have consumed a prohibited substance.
For Collins, he’ll need to detail how he obtained the supplement and what steps—if any—he took to assess the supplement’s ingredients. If, for example, Collins regularly uses this particular supplement and if he had not previously tested positive, he might credibly maintain that he had no reason to suspect that he would test positive this time around.
It appears Collins will argue such a point. His statement references alleged contamination of the supplement. This implies that the supplement would not ordinarily contain the “illegal component” that triggered the positive result. To the extent Collins preserved the bottle or other materials that contained the supplement, and to the extent other samples from that bottle/materials also show contamination, the more persuasive a defense Collins can raise.
The NBPA has a vested interest in seeing the suspensions of Ayton and Collins reduced. The union expended bargaining power in negotiating a drug policy that clearly distinguishes violators based on degree of fault. As Article XXXIII establishes, a player who mistakenly ingests a SPED or diuretic ought to be treated differently from one who knowingly or recklessly does so.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and the Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.