WASHINGTON (AP) — With steroids easy to buy, testing weak and punishments inconsistent, college football in the United States is facing a serious problem of doping, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.
Rules vary so widely that a university team with a strict no-steroid policy can face a team whose players have repeatedly tested positive. The AP investigation — based on dozens of interviews with players, testers, dealers and experts and an analysis of weight records for more than 61,000 players — revealed that while those running the sport believe the problem is under control, that is hardly the case.
The sport's near-zero rate of positive steroids tests isn't an accurate gauge. Random tests provide weak deterrence and, by design, fail to catch every player using steroids. Universities also are reluctant to spend money on expensive steroid testing when cheaper ones for drugs like marijuana allow them to say they're doing everything they can to keep drugs out of the sport.
"It's nothing like what's going on in reality," said Don Catlin, an anti-doping pioneer who spent years conducting lab tests at UCLA. He became so frustrated with the college system that it drove him in part to leave the testing industry to focus on anti-doping research.
Catlin said the collegiate system, in which players often are notified days before a test and many schools don't even test for steroids, is designed to not catch dopers. That artificially reduces the numbers of positive tests and keeps schools safe from embarrassing drug scandals.
While other major sports have been beset by revelations of steroid use, U.S. college football has operated with barely a scent of scandal. Between 1996 and 2010 — the era of high-profile doping cases involving Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong — the failure rate for steroid tests in U.S. college football fell even closer to zero from an already low rate of less than 1 percent.
The AP's investigation found thousands of players quickly putting on significant weight. The information compiled by the AP included players who appeared for multiple years on the same teams, making it the most comprehensive data available.
For decades, scientific studies have shown that anabolic steroid use leads to an increase in body weight. Weight gain alone doesn't prove steroid use, but very rapid weight gain is one factor that would be deemed suspicious, said Kathy Turpin, senior director of sport drug testing for the National Center for Drug Free Sport.
The AP found more than 4,700 players — or about 7 percent of all players — who gained more than 20 pounds (9 kilograms) overall in a single year. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has never studied weight gain or considered it in regard to its steroid testing policies, said Mary Wilfert, the NCAA's associate director of health and safety.
The NCAA attributes the decline in positive tests to its year-round drug testing program, combined with anti-drug education and testing conducted by schools. "The effort has been increasing, and we believe it has driven down use," Wilfert said.
While the use of drugs in professional sports is a question of fairness, use among college athletes is also important as a public policy issue. Most top-tier football teams are from public schools that benefit from millions of dollars each year in taxpayer subsidies. Their athletes are essentially wards of the state. Coaches and trainers — the ones who tell players how to behave, how to exercise and what to eat — are government employees.
Then there are the health risks, which include heart and liver problems and cancer. On paper, college football has a strong drug policy. The NCAA conducts random, unannounced drug testing and the penalties for failure are severe. Players lose an entire year of eligibility after a first positive test. A second offense means permanent ineligibility from sports.
In practice, though, the NCAA's roughly 11,000 annual tests amount to just a fraction of all athletes in the top two competitive divisions. Exactly how many tests are conducted each year on football players is unclear because the NCAA hasn't published its data for two years. And when it did, it periodically changed the formats, making it impossible to compare one year to the next.
Even when players are tested by the NCAA, people involved in the process say it's easy enough to anticipate the test and develop a doping routine that results in a clean test by the time it occurs. NCAA rules say players can be notified up to two days in advance of a test, which Catlin says is plenty of time to beat a test if players have designed the right doping regimen. By comparison, Olympic athletes are given no notice.
"Everybody knows when testing is coming. They all know. And they know how to beat the test," Catlin said, adding, "Only the really dumb ones are getting caught." Whether for athletics or age, Americans from teenagers to baby boomers are trying to get an edge by illegally using anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, despite well-documented risks. This is the first of a two-part series.