The NFL said yesterday it is seeking to strengthen its drug testing program by reducing the level of allowable testosterone in steroids tests to a new standard set by the International Olympic Committee.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the proposal to toughen the testing limit was made before it learned of a CBS report that three members of the Carolina Panthers had filled prescriptions for steroids two weeks before the 2004 Super Bowl.
CBS's "60 Minutes Wednesday" reported last night that former Carolina offensive tackle Todd Steussie, now with Tampa Bay, center Jeff Mitchell and punter Todd Sauerbrun each escaped detection for steroid use from the NFL's testing program in 2004. Steussie, according to records obtained by CBS, filled 11 prescriptions for testosterone cream over an eight-month period in 2004 and Mitchell reportedly filled seven testosterone prescriptions.
Sauerbrun, a Pro Bowl punter from 2001 to 2003, reportedly had prescriptions for syringes and stanozolol, a banned steroid under the NFL program that must be injected to be effective. He also received prescriptions for testosterone.
CBS reported that the prescriptions were written by James Shortt, a West Columbia, S.C., physician who had been under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The three players' names surfaced in the investigation, but they were not the prime targets, according to Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney.
Aiello said the NFL has been using the Olympic standard on testosterone limits, and when that standard was changed in January to make it more stringent, the league decided to do the same, subject to approval by the NFL Players Association.
Under the current NFL steroid policy, a positive testosterone reading would exceed a 6 to 1 ratio of testosterone/epitestosterone levels in a urine sample. The NFL will try to get to the Olympic standard, a 4 to 1 ratio.
NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw, a strong advocate of steroid testing, was not available to comment yesterday.
"There was a narrow window in this [Carolina] case," Aiello said in an interview. "There were a number of circumstances that came together -- apparently an unscrupulous doctor, a careful calibration of the test and a willingness of the players to risk getting caught. Do we think it's a widespread practice? No."
The NFL has a year-round testing program that includes randomly testing seven players a week during the season and the playoffs. Periodic testing also is conducted on a random basis in the offseason. First-time offenders are suspended for four games, with a six-game suspension for a second positive and a one-year suspension for a third.
"We have a program that makes it extremely difficult to get away with prohibited performance-enhancing substances," Aiello said. "As the commissioner [Paul Tagliabue] said last week, 'Is it perfect? No.' But we have one of the strongest programs in all sports, and the strongest program in team professional sports."
Shortt, according to yesterday's editions of the Charlotte Observer, said he prescribes steroids only in low doses and monitors patients to ensure their steroid levels are within "their upper limit of normal."
"People come to me often because they're worn down, they're exhausted, or something has happened to them and they haven't recovered fully," said Shortt, who declined to name any of his patients.
Aiello said that the NFL began testing for steroids 16 years ago; 54 players have been suspended for a minimum of four games for testing positive, forfeiting a quarter of their yearly salary. Another 57 players over the same span also tested positive for steroids, but they were either cut by their teams or retired and never were in the league long enough after the positive test to be suspended. No player who has tested positive once for steroid use was ever tested positive a second time, he said.