WASHINGTON — With steroids easy to buy, testing weak and punishments inconsistent, college football players are packing on significant weight – 30 pounds or more in a single year, sometimes – without drawing much attention from their schools or the NCAA in a sport that earns tens of billions of dollars for teams.
Rules vary so widely that, on any given game day, a team with a strict no-steroid policy can face a team whose players have repeatedly tested positive.
An investigation by The Associated Press – based on 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 multibillion-dollar sport say they believe the problem is under control, that control is hardly evident.
THE SPORT’S NEAR-ZERO rate of positive steroids tests isn’t an accurate gauge among college athletes. Random tests provide weak deterrence and, by design, fail to catch every player using steroids. Colleges 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 football.
“It’s nothing like what’s going on in reality,” said Don Catlin, an anti-doping pioneer who spent years conducting the NCAA’s laboratory tests at UCLA. He became so frustrated with the college system that it was part of the reason he left the testing industry to focus on anti-doping research.
While other major sports have been beset by revelations of steroid use, college football has operated with barely a whiff of scandal. Between 1996 and 2010 – the era of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong – the failure rate for NCAA steroid tests fell even closer to zero from an already low rate of less than 1 percent.
THE AP’S INVESTIGATION, drawing upon more than a decade of official rosters from all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, found thousands of players quickly putting on significant weight, even more than their fellow players.
The information compiled by the AP included players who appeared for multiple years on the same teams.
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, which conducts tests for the NCAA and more than 300 schools.
Yet the NCAA 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.
LOOKING SOLELY AT the most significant weight gainers ignores players like Bryan Maneafaiga.
In the summer of 2004, Maneafaiga was an undersized 180-pound running back trying to make the University of Hawaii football team. Twice – once in pre-season and once in the fall – he failed school drug tests, showing up positive for marijuana use but not steroids.
He’d started injecting stanozolol, a steroid, in the summer to help bulk up to a roster weight of 200 pounds. Once on the team, he’d occasionally inject the milky liquid into his buttocks the day before games.
“Food and good training will only get you so far,” he told the AP recently.
Maneafaiga’s former coach, June Jones, said it was news to him that one of his players had used steroids.
Jones, a former NFL quarterback who now coaches at Southern Methodist University, believes the NCAA does a good job rooting out steroid use.
The NCAA’s roughly 11,000 annual tests amount to a fraction of all athletes in Division I and II schools.
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 of football to the next.
AT NOTRE DAME and Alabama, the teams that will soon compete for the national championship, players don’t automatically miss games for testing positive for steroids.
At defending national champion Alabama, coaches have wide discretion. Notre Dame’s student-athlete handbook says a player who fails a test can return to the field once the steroids are out of his system.
At UCLA, athletes can fail three drug tests before being suspended. At Bowling Green, testing is voluntary.
Only about half the student athletes in a 2009 NCAA survey said they believed school testing deterred drug use. As an association of colleges and universities, the NCAA could not unilaterally force schools to institute uniform testing policies and sanctions, Wilfert said.
“We can’t tell them what to do, but if went through a membership process where they determined that this is what should be done, then it could happen,” she said.