NCAA, fans look blindly on steroids in football

November 18, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

We're inundated with roaring headlines about athletes using performance-enhancing drugs in the major leagues, the NFL, the Olympics, the Tour de France and even high school sports, but what about college football? There's barely a whisper, much less a roar.

Something is wrong with that. Are we supposed to believe that football jocks inclined to juicing do so before they get to college and after they reach the pros, but not while on campus? Please.

Rumors of widespread steroid use have dogged the college game for years. Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth tested positive before the 1987 Orange Bowl and had to sit the game out. In 1988, a University of South Carolina player told Sports Illustrated as many as half of his teammates used steroids.

This week's Sun stories about steroid use on the Navy football team are just the latest that suggest college juicers are more prevalent than anyone realizes.

The NCAA couldn't disagree more, of course. It began year-round testing in 1990, ramped it up a few years ago and last summer claimed to have a handle on the problem after a five-year study indicated declining use. A prior study said steroid use among college football players had declined from 8.4 percent in 1985 to 3 percent in 2001.

That's all well and good, but the size of the chiseled behemoths playing Division I-A football today suggest the problem is hardly solved. A wise doctor who knows about steroids once told me to trust my eyes above all when trying to detect abuse because, as he put it, lifting weights can only do so much. Well, my eyes are telling me that college football, like the pros, has more than its share of juicers.

Why don't more people care? Maybe because college sports is already oversaturated with scandals; after reading about boosters gone wild, players getting busted and the various academic sleights of hand so endemic to the scene, people just don't have the time or energy to get indignant about anything else.

Also, the supposed fundamental problem about steroid use - that it creates an uneven playing field - is diminished in college football because, well, the sport's playing field is already uneven. Or maybe you didn't notice that the same 25 teams compete for the national title ever year, give or take the occasional interloper.

The NCAA would have you believe the absence of indignation is directly tied to the lack of positive tests - you know, people don't care because there isn't a problem. There are numbers to support the notion. Between 1990 and 2000, only one player was caught juicing as part of the NCAA's system of testing bowl-bound players, according to ESPN.com. In 2004-05, the NCAA tested athletes in all of its postseason competitions, including the football bowls, and only two of 1,516 tested positive for steroids.

But of course, living as we do in this murky doping era, we have learned to view such results counterintuitively. If that few tests are coming up positive, it probably means athletes have figured out how to beat the test, not that fewer athletes are juicing.

Frankly, the circumstances in college football are ripe for abuse (no pun intended). The NCAA tests about 3 percent of its student-athletes annually between random, year-round tests and its system of testing postseason qualifiers. Otherwise, it's up to individual schools to test their athletes and levy punishments.

In other words, since the NCAA tests just 3 percent, the majority of detection and punishment is left to the schools. If a star halfback gets caught juicing on a school test, it's up to the school to decide whether to sit the halfback, who just might be good enough to earn the school a Bowl Championship Series bid worth millions. Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse.

Make no mistake, the NCAA is doing what it can to react to the increased concern about steroid use. In the wake of the shattering scandal in pro baseball, players were tested on all 64 teams that advanced to the regionals of the Division I baseball tournament last spring. And more and more athletes in all sports are being randomly tested.

But anyone who thinks college football is clean isn't looking closely enough.

The NCAA currently has a $4 million budget for drug testing, but with Fox paying $83 million annually to broadcast four-fifths of the BCS schedule starting this season, there should enough money in someone's till to pay for the increased testing that would ensure the games were clean.

It's hard to imagine that happening, of course, without a wave of public indignation like the one that landed baseball in Congress. But college football, for some reason, gets a free pass.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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