Academy performs parade of missteps with handling of steroid mess

November 19, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Approaching the most important game of yet another successful season, Navy seniors have a chance to graduate having swept rival Army on the football field over a four-year stretch. But it's everyone else at the Naval Academy who's learning a thing or two about sweeping right now.

We lifted the rug last week - that finely woven fabric of high standards and lofty expectations - and saw exactly what was underneath. We now know that the academy didn't take seriously the incriminating steroid admissions of five players, each of whom admitted to taking a banned steroid and none of whom suffered any real punishment.

The school and its coaches are itching for the story to disappear, but with congressional members taking an interest, don't expect this one to get swept away.

"It happened two years ago. There's not much there really," Navy coach Paul Johnson said after his team's 42-6 win over Temple yesterday, echoing sentiments expressed the past several days.

With every sentence that left Johnson's mouth last week, he might as well have been jabbing a shovel into the ground. On Tuesday, he told a Sun reporter it wasn't a "big deal."

"It wasn't like somebody was popping steroids," he said.

Actually, androstenedione is considered a steroid, something you kind of expect a college football coach to know - at least a coach who took seriously the admission by five of his players that they used that particular substance.

Johnson kept digging, and the next day, claimed that "everything was done aboveboard."

"Two freshmen made a mistake and the other guys tested negative," he told The Sun.

And therein lies exactly what smells so foul about the whole mess: The academy differentiates between the two players who tested positive and the five others, who merely said they used andro, by pointing to tests that cleared the second group of players.

At a glance, that might sound like a prudent defense. But last week, academy officials dragged their feet for four days before revealing that the tests weren't administered until two months after the players admitted to using andro. If everything was done aboveboard, someone in Annapolis needs to explain why they would sit on this key fact.

Two months is more than enough time for a substance like andro to pass out of an athlete's system. Heck, it's enough time for a basketball-sized kidney stone to pass out of one's system. Did the academy really expect one of them might test positive? Of course not - because Johnson immediately put out word ordering players to get rid of anything that would raise red flags.

The negative test results, on which the academy has hung its verdicts, are meaningless. If equity means anything at the academy - and it should - then the five players who admitted guilt should have been punished similarly to the two who tested positive. Those players were forced to sit out the entire 2005 season. The five others didn't miss a single down of action. Nearly two years later, coaches and school officials continue to hide behind testing they know to be worthless.

Five of the seven players are still on the team, one is a starter, and none has learned the proper lesson here. In fact, it's starting to look like no one did, from Johnson, the football coach, to Col. David Fuquea, now the assistant athletic director who handled the disciplinary proceedings.

The matter is steeped in complexity. For starters, the investigation is nearly two years old. Secondly, most sports fans remember a time when andro was an acceptable substance in the sports world.

Some around the academy try to suggest that the players carry a degree of innocence because the substance wasn't banned by the NCAA until at least the start of the 2004 season. (The players were caught using after the end of the season. Just a few weeks later, andro was ruled illegal by the federal government.)

This argument might mean something if all seven players hadn't signed a piece of paper promising to avoid andro and a long list of other substances. And if there weren't a sign in their locker room that listed andro as a banned substance. And if the label on the bottle of andro didn't specifically advise any athlete or anyone in the military to consult their sanctioning organization before popping a single pill.

Johnson wants you to think that Navy's infractions have an expiration date and wrongdoing by his players is no longer newsworthy. He called the matter a "non-story" and a "non-issue" last week, which certainly suggests Johnson is non-concerned about the cheating and the banned substances.

It's not just his words that support this, but the actions taken by the academy.

"[W]e handled it appropriately and the rest was turned over to the academy, and in my mind, they handled it appropriately," said Johnson, who says he was not aware two months passed before the five players were tested. "They investigated it and got to the bottom of it and case closed.

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