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 dozens of 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 believe the problem is under control, that is hardly the case.
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.
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 drove him in part to leave the testing industry to focus on anti-doping research.
Catlin said the collegiate system, in which players often are notified days before a test and many schools don't even test for steroids, is designed to not catch dopers. That artificially reduces the numbers of positive tests and keeps schools safe from embarrassing drug scandals.
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, making it the most comprehensive data available.
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. She would not speculate on the cause of such rapid weight gain.
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 effort has been increasing, and we believe it has driven down use," Wilfert said.
Big gains, data show
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. The documented weight gains could not be explained by the amount of money schools spent on weight rooms, trainers and other football expenses.
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.
The AP's analysis corrected for the fact that players in different positions have different body types, so speedy wide receivers weren't compared to bulkier offensive tackles. It could not assess each player's physical makeup, such as how much weight gain was muscle versus fat, one indicator of steroid use. In the most extreme case in the AP analysis, the probability that a player put on so much weight compared with other players was so rare that the odds statistically were roughly the same as an NFL quarterback throwing 12 passing touchdowns or an NFL running back rushing for 600 yards in one game.