Brandon Banks flunked a drug test but he’s not the only one who failed

By flunking a drug test, Hamilton Tiger-Cats return man Brandon Banks has been caught by a CFL policy that allows marijuana and cocaine but bans ecstasy. Banks may be responsible for his actions but he’s hardly the only who’s failed.

There are issues with the policy, flaws in its execution and – this is most important – both the CFL and the CFLPA need to do a far better job both protecting and educating the players. Banks is a professional athlete who knows he is likely to be drug tested on a regular basis: it’s up to him to know what he can and can’t take. Speedy has been suspended for two games because he took a banned substance and got caught. For some people, that’s the end of the discussion.

It should be just the beginning.

Banks tested positive for something called MDA which is known colloquially as MDA, Sally or Sassafras. It’s similar to MDMA, ecstasy or Molly. It’s about as a far from a performance-enhancing drug as you can get. At least in a football sense: I’m guessing it makes, um, other things more interesting. But it’s extremely unlikely Banks took a hit, then tried and run through 12 guys trying to rip his head off. Not a lot of love there.

So why is it on the banned list? It’s a stimulant and the World Anti-Doping Agency frowns on the ingesting of such substances in competition. The stuff can stay in your system for several days after taking it so the most likely scenario is that Banks took it, then got tested after a game a few days later.

When the CFL and the CFLPA announced the revamped drug policy at the beginning of this season – and let’s remember that this is a league that went an entire year without testing a single player or having regulations of any kind in place – they stressed that the focus was on performance-enhancing drugs, something that has the potential of distorting an otherwise level playing field.

It was not, in other words, supposed to be about “street drugs.” The league has long been known as place where players could smoke a little weed without facing the kind of over-the-top punishment handed out by the NFL. Several players told me the messaging from union officials echoed that sentiment: they were after steroid users, guys who used amphetamines on game day to jack themselves to the nines.

Players took that messaging – and the fact that they’d always been allowed to hang with Mary Jane – and assumed that recreational drugs were fine. Marijuana isn’t on the banned substances list. Neither is cocaine.

But MDA is, a fact that eluded many players – including Banks and Winnipeg Blue Bomber Bruce Johnson, who also tested positive for MDA. Both the CFL and particularly the CFLPA – whose principle job is to protect its members – failed in their responsibility to properly educate players.

And please spare me the sanctimonious argument that “drugs are bad and illegal” and therefore should be banned. Coke’s illegal, it’s not banned. Neither is weed. There are plenty of legal substances on the list, too. Drug policy in the CFL isn’t about enforcing a false morality, it’s about trying to make sure that players compete without chemical enhancement (putting aside the sham that allows legal painkillers to be used liberally.)

“But Speedy is a role model,” is another familiar refrain. But while professional athletes deserve to be celebrated for their tremendous physical gifts, idolizing them is fraught with peril. Some are legitimately good people, others are not – it’s about the same ratio as humanity in general – but most have the same flaws the rest of us do. If an 11-year-old needs to learn something from Banks’ travails this week, his willingness to take responsibility and apologize with painful earnestness is a good place to start.

And by the way, the CFL drug policy doesn’t explicitly list MDA or Molly or Sally or Sassafras or ecstasy any other colloquial nickname: for Banks to know what he was taking was banned he would have to known exactly what “Methylenedioxyamphetamine” is.

He didn’t and that’s too bad. But that’s a long way from being unconditionally wrong.  

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