WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
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 just ate. 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, including a one-year gain of 53 pounds, which he attributed to diet and two hours of weight lifting daily. “It wasn’t as difficult as you think. I just ate anything.”
Oldenburg told the AP he was surprised at the scope of steroid use in college football, even in Colorado State’s locker room. “College performance enhancers were more prevalent than I thought,” he said. “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.
What is bubbling under the surface in college football, which helps elite athletes gain unusual amounts of weight? Without access to detailed information about each player’s body composition, drug testing and workout regimen, which schools do not release, it’s impossible to say with certainty what’s behind the trend. But Catlin has little doubt: It is steroids.
“It’s not brain surgery to figure out what’s going on,” he said. “To me, it’s very clear.”
Football’s most infamous steroid user was Lyle Alzado, who became a star NFL defensive end in the 1970s and ‘80s before he admitted to juicing his entire career. He started in college, where the 190-pound freshman gained 40 pounds in one year. It was a 21 percent jump in body mass, a tremendous gain that far exceeded what researchers have seen in controlled, short-term studies of steroid use by athletes. Alzado died of brain cancer in 1992.
The AP found more than 130 big-time college football players who showed comparable one-year gains in the past decade. Students posted such extraordinary weight gains across the country, in every conference, in nearly every school. Many of them eclipsed Alzado and gained 25, 35, even 40 percent of their body mass.
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 and 262 pounds in the summer of his freshman year on the Cyclones football team. A year later, official rosters showed the former basketball player from Cedar Rapids weighed 306, a gain of 81 pounds since high school. He graduated as a 320-pound offensive lineman and said he did it all naturally.
“I was just a young kid at that time, and I was still growing into my body,” he said. “It really wasn’t that hard for me to gain the weight. I had fun doing it. I love to eat. It wasn’t a problem.”
In addition to random drug testing, Iowa State is one of many schools that have “reasonable suspicion” testing. That means players can be tested when their behavior or physical symptoms suggest drug use.
Despite gaining 81 pounds in a year, Lamaak said he was never singled out for testing.
The associate athletics director for athletic training at Iowa State, Mark Coberley, said coaches and trainers use body composition, strength data and other factors to spot suspected cheaters. Lamaak, he said, was not suspicious because he gained a lot of “non-lean” weight.
“There are a lot of things that go into trying to identify whether guys are using performance-enhancing drugs,” Coberley said. “If anybody had the answer, they’d be spotting people that do it. We keep our radar up and watch for things that are suspicious and try to protect the kids from making stupid decisions.”
There’s no evidence that Lamaak’s weight gain was anything but natural. Gaining fat is much easier than gaining muscle. But colleges don’t routinely release information on how much of the weight their players gain is muscle, as opposed to fat. Without knowing more, said Benardot, the expert at Georgia State, it’s impossible to say whether large athletes were putting on suspicious amounts of muscle or simply obese, which is defined as a body mass index greater than 30.
Looking solely at the most significant weight gainers also ignores players like Bryan Maneafaiga.
In the summer of 2004, Maneafaiga was an undersized 180-pound running back trying to make the University of Hawaii football team. Twice — once in pre-season and once in the fall — he failed school drug tests, showing up positive for marijuana use. What surprised him was that the same tests turned up negative for steroids.
He’d started injecting stanozolol, a steroid, in the summer to help bulk up to a roster weight of 200 pounds. Once on the team, where he saw only limited playing time, he’d occasionally inject the milky liquid into his buttocks the day before games.
“Food and good training will only get you so far,” he told the AP recently.
Maneafaiga’s coach, June Jones, meanwhile, said none of his players had tested positive for doping since he took over the team in 1999. He also said publicly that steroids had been eliminated in college football: “I would say 100 percent,” he told The Honolulu Advertiser in 2006.
Jones said it was news to him that one of his players had used steroids. Jones, who now coaches at Southern Methodist University, said many of his former players put on bulk working hard in the weight room. For instance, adding 70 pounds over a three- to four-year period isn’t unusual, he said.
Jones said a big jump in muscle year-over-year — say 40 pounds — would be a “red light that something is not right.”
Jones, a former NFL head coach, said he is unaware of any steroid use at SMU and believes the NCAA is doing a good job testing players. “I just think because the way the NCAA regulates it now that it’s very hard to get around those tests,” he said.