By Mark Maske and Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
The NFL and its players' union have agreed, for the second time in recent weeks, to toughen the league's steroid policy. The new measures triple the number of times a player can be tested for steroids during the offseason, add substances to the league's banned list and allow the league to retest players' urine samples for new designer steroids that may have gone undetected in previous tests, an NFL spokesman said yesterday.
Joe Browne, the league's executive vice president of communications and public affairs, said the changes are to be announced by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw today when they testify before a congressional committee.
Previously, the league and union agreed to lower the threshold for what constitutes a positive test for testosterone, keeping the NFL's standards in line with those of the International Olympic Committee. NFL officials conduct an annual review of their drug-testing policies, but these changes come with the league's steroid-testing program under renewed scrutiny because of a recent report that three Carolina Panthers players had steroid prescriptions filled by a South Carolina physician within two weeks of playing in the Super Bowl in February 2004.
The league and union agreed to increase the number of times a player can be tested for steroids during the offseason from two to six, Browne said. He indicated that substances will be added to the banned list but did not identify them, and he said the changes will "codify the league's ability to retest specimens for designer steroids that may have evaded detection."
Tagliabue and Upshaw are among the scheduled witnesses today as the House Government Reform Committee conducts a hearing on the NFL's steroid policy. The committee conducted last month's highly publicized hearing on steroid use in major league baseball.
In interviews over the past few weeks, current and former NFL players said it's possible that players are finding ways to beat the league's testing system but they're convinced that steroid use is not widespread.
"I'm not going to be naive," said Buffalo Bills cornerback Troy Vincent, the president of the NFL Players Association. "It doesn't matter which sport you are or what you're doing to prevent it, you will have instances where it will happen. But I truly believe in our system. It works. It will work."
But questions have been raised because the three current or former Panthers players named in a "60 Minutes Wednesday" report -- punter Todd Sauerbrun and offensive linemen Todd Steussie and Jeff Mitchell -- never tested positive despite repeatedly filling testosterone-cream prescriptions by James Shortt, whose medical license has been suspended by the South Carolina board of medical examiners. Sauerbrun reportedly also received syringes and an injectable steroid, Stanozolol.
"Look at the Panthers case," said one steroid expert, Penn State health policy and administration professor Charles Yesalis. "When I saw Stanozolol, there can only be four explanations: One, he was never going to use it. Two, he's a moron. Three, he knew he was not going to be tested. Four, he was bullet-proof."
Yesalis said "there are guys I've spoken with who say there is a sustained epidemic of use" in the league. He said the NFL's steroid-testing program "suffers from fatal flaws" because a "disinterested third party" does not oversee it.
"It's the fox running the henhouse," Yesalis said. "Tell me the last franchise player who has been caught with a performance-enhancing drug. The number is zero. To me, the appearance of impropriety is always there."
NFL officials say that an average of about three players per season have been suspended under the league's steroid-testing policy, in which a player is subject to a four-game suspension without pay for a first positive test. Players are subject to year-round random testing. All players are tested at least once a year in training camp, and seven players per team are randomly selected each week during the season for testing.
Vincent called the Panthers case "a concern," and added: "It's out there. It's always going to be out there, as long as you have athletes who are looking for an edge. There's so much at stake now financially. . . . When [the report about the Panthers players] happened, it came out at the peak of the baseball stuff. It made our league look like we might have a problem, too. But we've had a system in place for many, many years . . . and it works."
Other players say much the same thing. "I think we have one of the most aggressive testing programs of any sport," Kansas City Chiefs veteran guard Will Shields said. "I don't think we have a rampant problem."
Said former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith: "It's probably not much more widespread than the people you see getting caught. I think if more people were doing it, you'd see more people getting caught. It's not that easy to hide. Not only do you have testing, but you have cases like this one in Carolina where the doctor gets caught and it comes out that way."
Gary Wadler, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, said he would like to see the NFL turn its program over to the World Anti-Doping Agency, of which he is a member.
"I do believe in the sincerity of the NFL drug program," said Wadler, who is scheduled to testify today. "Their program has been the best in the professional sports leagues. But they don't do blood testing. At the end of the day, it's getting to be of such complexity that leagues should take the lead of the Olympics and get out of the testing business themselves."
Browne said the league has no plan to divorce itself from the testing process. The league pays to have its 9,000 annual steroid tests conducted at a WADA-approved laboratory at UCLA.
"Our NFL substance-abuse program, which is collectively bargained and has widespread acceptance by our NFL players, has been hailed by WADA medical consultants as the 'gold standard' for other sports," Browne said.
Today's witness list includes Steve Courson, a former NFL lineman who has said that his steroid use contributed to a heart condition. Two high school coaches, Willie Stewart of Anacostia High in the District, and Bobby Barnes of Buckeye Union (Ariz.) High, who suspended 10 players from his team two years ago after learning they had taken steroids, also will testify.