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NFL now faces its own steroids test
In 1989, just one year after Ben Johnson ran to steroids infamy in the Olympic Games, Gary Wadler co-authored a critically acclaimed book on drugs in sports.
Performance-enhancing drugs, Wadler decided in the mid-80s, were spiraling out of control. His answer was Drugs and the Athlete, a two-year project written with Brian Hainline that became the international handbook -- appearing in English, Japanese and French -- for dealing with drug abuse in sports.
"It was Ben Johnson that probably opened the eyes of the world to the dimensions of doping," said Wadler, a medical professor at New York University and a board member of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Johnson's forfeiture of his sprinting gold medal in the 1988 Games for a positive steroids test served as an awakening. This week's disclosure that three Carolina Panthers allegedly purchased illegal performance-enhancing substances shortly before the February 2004 Super Bowl served as another reminder of how insidious the drug culture is.
"This is a work in progress on the international and national front to come to grips with a pervasive form of drug abuse," Wadler said yesterday.
"At the end of the day, it's about drug dealing. It's a pernicious form of dealing that has all the elements of drug dealing, including dependency, illicit behavior and money. But we don't think of it viscerally as a form of drug abuse."
The NFL has launched its own investigation into the latest steroids scandal. CBS' news show, 60 Minutes Wednesday, last night reported that center Jeff Mitchell, tackle Todd Steussie and punter Todd Sauerbrun filled repeated prescriptions for a banner steroid less than two weeks before they played in the Super Bowl.
Steussie, no longer with the Panthers, and Mitchell allegedly obtained a total of 18 prescriptions for testosterone cream over an eight-year period. Sauerbrun not only bought the cream, but allegedly purchased syringes and Stanozolol, an injectable steroid also banned by the league. Stanozolol was also the steroid used by Johnson in 1988.
CBS obtained the prescription records in the wake of a federal investigation of James Shortt, a Columbia, S.C., physician, for allegedly prescribing steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.
Shortt told The Charlotte Observer this week that he prescribes the drugs only when medically necessary and only in low doses.
Meanwhile, the NFL is left to explain how its steroids program -- regarded by many as the most comprehensive in professional sports -- can fail to detect alleged drug abusers like the three players in the CBS report. But the NFL doesn't believe it is a widespread problem.
Although the league uses the same testing measures as the Olympics, players have taken advantage of steroid creams that do not show up in sufficient levels in urine to test positive. Yet, the cream gives them similar benefits.
Testing for testosterone levels is a tricky business. According to international anti-doping standards, a testosterone level that is six times that person's epitestosterone level was considered a violation of the drug test. Recently, the Olympics adopted a 4-to-1 ratio as a positive test.
The NFL, which used the 6-to-1 ratio in its testing, wants to switch to the 4-to-1 ratio to strengthen its steroids screening program.
"The Olympics adopted the 4-to-1 ratio in January and our plan was to make the same change," said league spokesman Greg Aiello. "We will talk to the union about it to further reduce the prospect of a player using testosterone without being detected.
"We anticipate the [players'] union will support the change in threshold for testosterone positive tests."
The NFL Players Association did not return phone and e-mail messages yesterday.
Aiello said any modifications in the drug program would occur in May and would be in effect for the 2005 season.
Still, there are those who wonder about the league's testing guidelines. Dr. Charles E. Yesalis III, a Penn State professor and one of the country's leading experts on performance-enhancing drugs, thinks the use of Stanozolol is a red flag.
"No tested athlete in a non-corrupt system -- nobody in his right mind -- would have taken that, unless they weren't worried about being tested," Yesalis said.
Yesalis also said that one way to circumvent the testing process is to hire an expert to perform periodic tests to ensure the testosterone to epitestosterone levels stay under the 6-to-1 ratio.
Yesalis said he has been approached four times to perform such work -- including by "a couple of NFL players" -- but declined each time.
Ravens coach Brian Billick commends the league for its drug program. But he has concerns about the over-the-counter supplements that players routinely take.
"The problem that scares me is that the whole [nutritional supplement] industry is so unregulated, and the purity of the substances of what's actually in them [is uncertain]," he said. "Because of the lack of regulation, we ask our players to bring in whatever they want to take [to be approved]. Sometimes it's a combination of things you find in medicines that can present a problem, too."
Although Mitchell played two seasons under Billick and three with the Ravens, the coach said "it would be hard for me to characterize the likelihood" of his steroid use.
It's uncertain whether the steroid issue will send the NFL before a congressional committee, as it did baseball on March 17, but Congress is watching.
"The issue has most definitely attracted the committee's attention, and will be part of our ongoing investigation, since an element of our inquiry moving forward will be to compare and contrast different pro sports leagues experiences with, and responses to, steroid use," said David Marin, deputy staff director and communications director for the House Government Reform Committee.
In the six years since his book came out, Wadler believes much progress has been made.
"We have seen a full-court press on many fronts, seen increased awareness of steroid abuse," he said. "Over a six-year period of time, we have made quantum leaps, including holding baseball's feet to the fire.
"I think every sport needs to have its feet held to the fire. We have to guarantee our kids they are witnessing a level playing field and healthy competition. This is not a problem that is going to go away, as we move into gene doping."
Sun staff writer Jeff Barker contributed to this article.