WASHINGTON (AP) — With steroids easy to buy, testing weak and punishments inconsistent, college football players are packing on significant weight — 30 pounds or more in a single year, sometimes — without drawing much attention from their schools or the NCAA in a sport that earns tens of billions of dollars for teams.
Rules vary so widely that, on any given game day, a team with a strict no-steroid policy can face a team whose players have repeatedly tested positive.
An investigation by The Associated Press — based on interviews with players, testers, dealers and experts and an analysis of weight records for more than 61,000 players — revealed that while those running the multibillion-dollar sport say they believe the problem is under control, that control is hardly evident.
The sport's near-zero rate of positive steroids tests isn't an accurate gauge among college athletes. Random tests provide weak deterrence and, by design, fail to catch every player using steroids. Colleges also are reluctant to spend money on expensive steroid testing when cheaper ones for drugs like marijuana allow them to say they're doing everything they can to keep drugs out of football.
"It's nothing like what's going on in reality," said Don Catlin, an anti-doping pioneer who spent years conducting the NCAA's laboratory tests at UCLA. He became so frustrated with the college system that it was part of the reason he left the testing industry to focus on anti-doping research.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Whether for athletics or age, Americans from teenagers to baby boomers are trying to get an edge by illegally using anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, despite well-documented risks. This is the first of a two-part series.
While other major sports have been beset by revelations of steroid use, college football has operated with barely a whiff of scandal. Between 1996 and 2010 — the era of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong — the failure rate for NCAA steroid tests fell even closer to zero from an already low rate of less than 1 percent.
The AP's investigation, drawing upon more than a decade of official rosters from all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, found thousands of players quickly putting on significant weight, even more than their fellow players. The information compiled by the AP included players who appeared for multiple years on the same teams.
For decades, scientific studies have shown that anabolic steroid use leads to an increase in body weight. Weight gain alone doesn't prove steroid use, but very rapid weight gain is one factor that would be deemed suspicious, said Kathy Turpin, senior director of sport drug testing for the National Center for Drug Free Sport, which conducts tests for the NCAA and more than 300 schools.
Yet the NCAA has never studied weight gain or considered it in regard to its steroid testing policies, said Mary Wilfert, the NCAA's associate director of health and safety.
The NCAA attributes the decline in positive tests to its year-round drug testing program, combined with anti-drug education and testing conducted by schools.
The AP's analysis found that, regardless of school, conference and won-loss record, many players gained weight at exceptional rates compared with their fellow athletes and while accounting for their heights.
Adding more than 20 or 25 pounds of lean muscle in a year is nearly impossible through diet and exercise alone, said Dan Benardot, director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University.
In nearly all the rarest cases of weight gain in the AP study, players were offensive or defensive linemen, hulking giants who tower above 6-foot-3 and weigh 300 pounds or more. Four of those players interviewed by the AP said that they never used steroids and gained weight through dramatic increases in eating, up to six meals a day. Two said they were aware of other players using steroids.
"I ate 5-6 times a day," said Clint Oldenburg, who played for Colorado State starting in 2002 and for five years in the NFL. Oldenburg's weight increased over four years from 212 to 290.
Oldenburg told the AP he was surprised at the scope of steroid use in college football, even in Colorado State's locker room. "There were a lot of guys even on my team that were using." He declined to identify any of them.
The AP found more than 4,700 players — or about 7 percent of all players — who gained more than 20 pounds overall in a single year. It was common for the athletes to gain 10, 15 and up to 20 pounds in their first year under a rigorous regimen of weightlifting and diet. Others gained 25, 35 and 40 pounds in a season. In roughly 100 cases, players packed on as much 80 pounds in a single year.
In at least 11 instances, players that AP identified as packing on significant weight in college went on to fail NFL drug tests. But pro football's confidentiality rules make it impossible to know for certain which drugs were used and how many others failed tests that never became public.
Even though testers consider rapid weight gain suspicious, in practice it doesn't result in testing. Ben Lamaak, who arrived at Iowa State in 2006, said he weighed 225 pounds in high school. He graduated as a 320-pound offensive lineman and said he did it all naturally.
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