MLB and other professional leagues have come under withering scrutiny with respect to their steroid testing programs. Â Somehow, the NCAA has avoided that spotlight.
This story by the AP shines a little light on the problem.
By EDDIE PELLS, AP National WriterÂ
-Â WedÂ MarÂ 30, 12:34Â pmÂ ET
At the first sign that his school might have a steroid problem, athletic director Bob Copeland of Waterloo University in Canada decided unbiased vigilance was the best option, even though he knew he’d hear plenty of complaints.
At great cost - both monetarily and in the court of public opinion - Copeland had every member of the football team tested for performance-enhancing drugs. Nine players tested positive. The school responded by shutting down the program for a year, a move that brought a huge outcry but also triggered a renaissance of sorts for drug testing in college sports in Canada.
In the 12 months since the biggest steroid scandal in Canadian college sports, Copeland has became a well-known figure in the anti-doping business, writing opinions and essays on the subject and speaking at the occasional gathering of North American sports administrators.
And the number of U.S. athletic directors who’ve reached out to him for advice?
“Not one,” he said. “I can tell you that I’ve reached out to a few in a collegial manner, but haven’t had any response. It’s disappointing. But I’m not necessarily surprised.”
Copeland’s experience falls in line with observations drawn from an Associated Press survey of drug-testing policies in college sports, which showed an overall lack of clarity, unity, consistency or integrated strategy between schools, conferences and the NCAA in the effort to keep performance-enhancing drugs out of the games.
While the NCAA runs an umbrella program, the conferences vary widely in what they do to augment the NCAA rules. Some, such as the Big Ten, have extensive guidelines that closely mirror the NCAA’s. Others have nothing and say they simply adhere to the NCAA, which also tests athletes at postseason events it sanctions, including this week’s Final Four.
At the individual school level, the AP sent out requests for information about drug-testing policies at 76 universities - 73 to the six biggest conferences and three more to mid-major teams that were ranked in the Top 25 in the Feb. 28 AP men’s basketball poll - and received responses from 51
Some policies - such as the one at Florida - were stringent, kicking athletes who test positive for steroids into Phase IV of its sanction program, which calls for missing at least 50 percent of the season. Others barely mentioned performance-enhancing drugs. Not a single school’s drug policy submitted to the AP read exactly the same as another - even within conferences and states - and the majority appeared much more concerned with curbing recreational-drug use than steroids.
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said his school, which runs one of the biggest athletic departments in the country, is comfortable with its program.
“We have a very comprehensive and extensive drug-testing protocol that reinforces one of our values, being a drug-free department,” Brandon said. “It’s a very complete test that covers not only recreational drugs, but also steroids and the misuse of prescription drugs and other drugs deemed illegal or as performance-enhancers by the NCAA. Our student-athletes and coaches know we don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk.”
Like those at many schools, Michigan’s drug-testing policy explicitly states it is used to augment other efforts and to help prepare athletes for testing by the NCAA and the conference - in this case, the Big Ten.
The NCAA program calls for at least one drug-testing visit to every Division I and Division II campus each school year - in which a number of athletes from various sports can be tested. The NCAA, which boasts in commercials that it sanctions about 400,000 athletes across all divisions, administered about 11,000 tests in 2008-09, the most recent period for which statistics are available. Beginning in August, a new NCAA rule will require all Division I schools to designate a staff member who can answer questions about dietary supplements and banned drugs.
The reputable National Center for Drug-Free Sport runs the NCAA testing program but does it to the guidelines approved by the NCAA, not the code established by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The NCAA’s rules about advance notice, independence in judging cases and transparency skew far from the WADA rules, which are what some of the most-respected experts view as best practices. So far did the NCAA veer from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s standards that USADA refused to run the NCAA’s testing program when asked.
“They have programs,” WADA’s Gary Wadler said of college sports. “Some are related to conferences, some related to championships, some depend on sports, some depend on drugs. But has anyone really taken a serious look at the NCAA they way we’ve looked at the NFL and Major League Baseball? The answer is no. For a long time, I’ve been mystified by that.”
The NFL has an extensive program that has improved over the years but has no blood testing, which eliminates the chances of detecting human growth hormone. As for Major League Baseball, the BALCO probe and the Mitchell Report exposed a handful of big-name players as alleged drug users. Baseball has slowly shifted its drug-testing policy, though it still does not conduct blood tests.
College sports, on the other hand, have produced very little news about steroid problems. In the past year, only one case involving performance-enhancing drugs has made significant headlines - and they came and went quickly.
At almost the same time the Waterloo case produced the first North American athlete to test positive for human growth hormone, a University of Miami baseball player was charged with possession of marijuana and 19 vials of human growth hormone. He was dismissed from the team, and every member of the team was tested, with no one showing any indication of either recreational or performance-enhancing drug usage.
The AP review found Miami’s drug-testing program to be one of the more stringent, calling for a minimum of three urine tests a year and automatic suspensions after the first positive test.
But there was nothing in the policy that called for blood testing. It was not included in any of the college policies reviewed by the AP. Part of that is because of expense - which can range up to $800 per test including collection, testing and analysis - and in part because “there are a lot of challenges to collecting blood,” said Mary Wilfert, the NCAA’s associate director of health and safety.
“We don’t think we’re at a point yet where we believe it’s considered critical to do it, and membership hasn’t demanded it yet,” Wilfert said.
Among the NCAA program’s other perceived weaknesses are its lack of no-advance-notice testing and its penalty structure, which calls for a one-year suspension for a first offense, as opposed to two under the WADA code.
Wilfert says the association’s sanctioning policy is based on the fact that college players only have four years of eligibility, while at the Olympic level “participation is long as body can manage it.”
On the lack of no-advance-notice testing - something WADA experts consider crucial but is nonetheless rarely seen outside the Olympic movement - Wilfert conceded the NCAA has not reached that point, “but if you believe you could be tested at any time, you’re less likely to use.”
Wilfert said the NCAA, as in all things it oversees, molds policies after what the membership wants.
“Testing for performance-enhancing and recreational drugs is an evolving process,” Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said. “As institutions, it seems we’re always playing catch up. The effectiveness and costs of testing provide great challenges.”
Judging by a recent NCAA survey about drug-testing in sports, there’s only lukewarm interest. In 2009, the NCAA sent out about 1,000 49-question surveys and received responses from only 45 percent of the schools.
Of those who responded, 54 percent said they had their own drug-testing program in place. That number jumped to 98 percent - 55 of 56 respondents - for schools in the Division I BCS football division. Of those, only 18 percent tested for anabolic steroids, while 99 percent tested for marijuana and cocaine.
Copeland said the focus on recreational drugs at the campus level (the NCAA doesn’t test for those drugs) is commendable but might be missing the point.
“You can certainly be lulled into a false sense of security thinking you don’t have a problem because test results suggest you don’t have a problem,” he said.
Copeland, who was roundly criticized for his vigilant stand when the scandal broke at his school, is now earning respect as the man who has helped shift the attitude about performance-enhancing drugs in Canada, where colleges are held to the same standards as the country’s Olympic athletes.
The athletic director cited studies that say between 4 percent and 6 percent of high school students knowingly use anabolic steroids and believes that if it was happening in Canadian colleges, it’s logical to think it’s happening in the United States, where college sports are much bigger in almost every respect.
“If you had a mathematician looking at it from a purely logical point of view, you’d draw the conclusion that you’d think it’s happening somewhere,” Copeland said. “But you don’t really know until you have a testing system that’s rigorous, unannounced with a lot of testing happening at different periods throughout the year. It’s sort of like saying that if a referee doesn’t make a call on the field that an infraction didn’t take place. All it really means is they didn’t catch it.“