ESPN.com - GEN - NCAA drug-testing program catches few cheaters

 Wednesday, December 20
Mouse beats cat in NCAA testing
 
 By Tom Farrey
ESPN.com

EL PASO, Tex. -- Of all the possible outcomes of the bowl season that concludes this most uncertain of college football seasons, this is one of the most likely: None of the 5,000 or so players participating in the 25 bowls will test positive for steroids.

Since 1990, only one Division I player -- in 1996 -- has been caught with the juice in his urine as part of the NCAA's system of testing bowl-bound players for drugs.

But does that mean everyone is clean? Hardly.

"All it means is they know the test is coming so they discontinue use," said Frank Uryasz, whose company, Missouri-based Drug Free Sport, handles the administration of the tests for the NCAA. "Athletes aren't stupid."

Even if they are dumb as rocks, they are not likely to get caught. The NCAA tested only 121 players during last year's bowl season, up from 108 players the year before, according to the NCAA. That means there was no better than a 1 in 38 chance that a player would be asked to pee in a cup.

Moreover, a suspicious result might not get a player banned from the game, either. The only way to detect some forms of steroids use is through elevated testosterone levels in the body. A normal male has a testosterone-epitestosterone ratio of 1:1. But some people have naturally high levels of testosterone, and current testing machines cannot distinguish synthetic from real testosterone.

So, the NCAA gives athletes the benefit of the doubt. Only those with a ratio of greater than 6:1 are busted and receive the standard, one-year suspension from competition.

Even then, the testosterone-rich player might not face a penalty. Players who initially register with greater than a 6:1 ratio are re-tested later by the NCAA to determine if that ratio changes. If it fluctuates up or down, the player is considered to be using steroids. If it stays the same, the player is exonerated -- even if his method of keeping the same T-E ratio is to continue taking steroids.

Consequently, the NCAA has no real idea how many players are using steroids.

"I wish I could give you a number, but I can't," said Uryasz, a former NCAA official.

The NCAA's year-round testing program is slightly more effective at catching cheaters because it is random in method, Uryasz said. Representatives for Drug Free Sport tell a school 48 hours in advance that some of its athletes will be tested. Anywhere from 18 to 26 players on a football team will be tested each time.

Both the teams and the players tested are selected at random. Each team is tested at least once a year. Some are tested more often. During the 1998-99 school year, 24 of the 5,033 tests given in Division I football resulted in players being ruled ineligible for steroids -- less than one-half of one percent, the typical annual rate.

Uryasz places the figure of steroid positives at closer to 2 percent, by including substances that are used to mask steroid use as well as players who were ruled ineligible for refusing to take the test.

But that number still is not reflective of the number of steroid users, he said. One reason is that even with the random nature of the program, the odds are that an athlete will be tested no more than a couple of times during his college career -- hardly enough to catch all but a few users.

Players also know the NCAA does not test in the summer months. The NCAA can only test from the beginning of fall practice until the end of the academic year, leaving a block of two to three months in the summer for players to bulk up illegally without fear of getting busted.

That window offers more than enough time for many steroids to leave the body. Drug tests can detect oral-based steroids only if they are taken in the previous week, Uryasz said. Injectible steroids, which are typically oil-based, can take months to clear all traces from the body.

According to NCAA surveys of athletes, steroid use is down. In 1997, the most recent year the survey was conducted, 2.2 percent of football players said they used steroids in the past year, down from 9.7 percent in 1989, the year before the NCAA's year-round testing program went into place.

However, those surveys cannot be entirely trusted, because they were self-reported by schools that had asked their athletes to respond to the questionnaires, said Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor and author of several books on steroids and athletes.

"With the NCAA figures, you don't get honest answers anymore," Yesalis said. "Players know the problem isn't going away, so they figure, 'Why beat up our sport?' "

Despite its flaws, the NCAA drug-testing program is still worthwhile, Uryasz said. He argues that the simple threat of being tested has apparently reduced steroid use.

It's a lesson largely lost on individual schools. Like the University of Texas-El Paso, 93 percent of schools have some form of random drug-testing program in place that supplements the NCAA program, according to a January survey. But, also like UTEP, most of them test only for street drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.

Steroids tests are usually only given on a "reasonable cause" basis by schools. This scenario creates a conflict of interest because it relies on school officials, usually the coach, to single out players who may be critical to the team's success. Besides, some coaches are more adept than others at recognizing steroid users -- who sometimes are not much larger than they were when natural.

"If you're testing on probable cause, and you're not very good at it, it doesn't mean much," Uryasz said.

Schools also resist giving steroids tests on economic grounds. The local lab that UTEP uses charges $300 for a complete steroids test, compared to $20 for a scan for street drugs, said athletics director Bob Stull. For cost reasons, the Miners ordered a less extensive check for steroids, at $180 per test, for three football players in the past year that were suspected of steroids use (each passed).

Uryasz, though, said the tests can be had for much less than athletics directors believe. His firm charges $75 to $100 for a full scan for NCAA-banned substances. The samples are analyzed at UCLA, which has the only U.S. testing lab accredited by the International Olympic Committee.

Further incentive for schools to do their own random steroids testing: They don't have to report positive tests to the NCAA. That means schools can handle the punishment, and treatment, on their own -- eliminating the surprise of an NCAA test that could knock a player out of competition for a year.

"Most schools would prefer to identify a problem before the NCAA does," Uryasz said.

Assuming, that is, the NCAA is likely to identify that problem. Right now, most schools are willing to roll the dice.

Tom Farrey is a Senior Writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn.com.

 



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