Who dropped this ball?

November 21, 2006

Midshipmen at the Naval Academy apparently aren't the only ones who can benefit from an education. Navy football coach Paul Johnson's recent claim that two of his players who tested positive for taking a banned body-building drug in 2005 "weren't popping steroids" either isn't up on the latest juicing fads or he intentionally tried to downplay the mild disciplinary action given to the athletes. Neither case stands as the exemplary display of leadership that we expect from our service academies.

The truth is that androstenediol, which the football players consumed in the form of commercially marketed 1-AD pills, is an anabolic steroid that is processed by the liver and converted into high levels of muscle-building testosterone. "Andro," as the substance is popularly known, was banned by the NCAA prior to the 2004 football season and declared illegal, along with other designer drugs, by Congress in January 2005.

The crackdown should not have come as a surprise, particularly to college athletes and players or even to someone whose morning workout consists only of lifting a coffee mug and turning the sports pages. A year before Congress acted, the Food and Drug Administration warned repeatedly about the ill effects of taking steroid-like substances, including immediate precursors to 1-AD, and asked companies to stop making them. At the time, the anti-juicing focus spotlighted abuses by professional athletes, though its implications should have been clearly understood by players at all levels.

The two Navy athletes who tested positive were sidelined during the 2005 season. Despite the academy's zero-tolerance drug policy, they were neither court martialed nor kicked out of the Navy, probably because investigating officers accepted the players' claim that they were not aware that the drug was illegal. Harder to swallow is last week's revelation that academy officials, after learning that five other players admitted to taking the drug, waited two months - more than enough time for the drug traces to disappear - before they administered urine tests. The tests proved negative and the players were allowed to compete on the field.

The Naval Academy says it tries hard to educate midshipmen about what drugs to avoid. It should try harder. Somebody dropped the ball on this.

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