The NFL has informed its players union that league officials plan to show up on the first day of training camp to interview three players named in an Al-Jazeera America report linking them to performance enhancers and other drugs.
Adolpho Birch, the league’s senior vice president of labor policy and league affairs, wrote in a strongly worded letter to NFL counsel Heather McPhee – obtained Friday by USA TODAY Sports – that Green Bay Packers linebackers' Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison all will be scheduled for interviews the day camps open. The Packers are scheduled to hold their first practice on July 26 and the Steelers on July 29.
Mike Neal, a former Packers linebacker who’s currently a free agent, will be interviewed on or before July 22, the letter said.
Peppers and Matthews vehemently denied the allegations in their first public comments after the report was released. Neal neither confirmed nor denied the report.
“It’s not true,” Peppers said after a regular-season game in Arizona. “It’s completely erroneous, and I think it’s irresponsible journalism, in my opinion. I’m subject to the same steroid and drug-testing policy as everybody else. So I don’t understand how I could be linked to something like this.”
Said Matthews: “I think it’s (expletive) to be completely honest with you. It’s 100 percent falsified, fabricated information. I don’t who this guy is. I couldn’t tell you what he looks like. I’ve never talked with him. I’ve never communicated with him. So for him to bring my name up like that, which appears to be out of thin air, it’s (expletive) for a lack of a better term.”
The letter didn’t mention former Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, the most prominent figure in the report who is now retired and not a member of the union. But that investigation is also progressing, a person with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the case.
The allegations were made by Charlie Sly, a former anti-aging clinic intern who was secretly videotaped as part of the Al-Jazeera documentary. Sly has since recanted, but NFL officials, including Commissioner Roger Goodell, have vowed to pursue the matter.
“On January 11, 2016, the league notified Messrs. Peppers, Neal, Matthews and Harrison that it had initiated an investigation following the airing of the Al-Jazeera America documentary, which raised serious issues concerning their possible violation of the NFL/NFLPA Policy on Performance-Enhancing Substances,” Birch’s letter said. “The players were further advised that, with their full and timely cooperation, the investigation would be conducted expeditiously and with minimal disruption.
“While the investigation has proceeded, we have yet to interview the players. We have attempted since early April to work through the NFLPA to schedule them, but despite multiple requests the NFLPA has failed to respond, except to seek reconsideration of the basis for the investigation. This continuing delay and avoidance has obstructed our ability to conduct and conclude the investigation.
“In fairness to all, including the players involved, we must move forward with the interviews. Accordingly, this will advise that the interviews of Messrs. Peppers, Matthews and Harrison will be scheduled for the first day of their respective training camps, and the interview of Mr. Neal (free agent) will take place on or before July 22. The players will be advised of the specific scheduling details by separate correspondence on which the NFLPA will be copied, and of course an NFLPA representative may attend each interview should the player so request.”
An NFLPA spokesman said the union isn’t commenting on the matter.
The collectively bargained drug policy allows for the NFL to discipline players “found through sufficient credible documented evidence … to have used, possessed or distributed performance-enhancing substances,” even if they didn’t fail a test or run afoul of the law. A footnote says “sufficient credible evidence includes but is not limited to: criminal convictions or plea arrangements; admissions, declarations, affidavits, authenticated witness statements, corroborated law enforcement reports or testimony in legal proceedings; authenticated banking, telephone, medical or pharmacy records; or credible information obtained from Players who provide assistance pursuant to Section 10 of the Policy.”
The union is likely to question whether Sly’s since-recanted accusations meet the threshold to compel players’ cooperation in the investigation.
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero
Ryan Wood contributed to this report.