WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
An investigation by The Associated Press — 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 multibillion-dollar sport believe the problem is under control, that is hardly the case.
Safe from scandals
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 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, 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, 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, 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. She would not speculate on the cause of such rapid weight gain.
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 AP’s analysis foundthat, regardless of school, conference and won-loss record, many players gained weight at exceptional rates compared with their fellow athletes and while accounting for their heights. The documented weight gains could not be explained by the amount of money schools spent on weight rooms, trainers and other football expenses.
The AP found more than 4,700 players — or about seven percent of all players — who gained more than 20 pounds overall in a single year. It was common for the athletes to gain 10, 15 and up to 20 pounds in their first year under a rigorous regimen of weightlifting and diet. Others gained 25, 35 and 40 pounds in a season. In roughly 100 cases, players packed on as much 80 pounds in a single year.
In at least 11 instances, players whom AP identified as packing on significant weight in college went on to fail NFL drug tests. But pro football’s confidentiality rules make it impossible to know for certain which drugs were used and how many others failed tests that never became public.
Just a fraction
The AP found more than 130 big-time college football players who showed comparable one-year gains in the past decade. Students posted such extraordinary weight gains across the country, in every conference, in nearly every school.
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 ineligibilityfrom sports.
In practice, though, the NCAA’s roughly 11,000 annual tests amount to just 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.
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. By comparison, Olympic athletes are given no notice.
Players are far more likely to be tested for drugs by their schools than by the NCAA. But while many schools have policies that give them the right to test for steroids, they often opt not to. Schools are much more focused on street drugs like cocaine and marijuana. Depending on how many tests a school orders, each steroid test can cost $100 to $200, while a simple test for street drugs might cost as little as $25.
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 it went through a membership process where they determined that this is what should be done, then it could happen,” she said.