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Steroid heat now turns to NFL
Two weeks after a congressional hearing intensified the steroids spotlight on baseball, the onus of abusing performance-enhancing drugs shifts to the NFL tonight.
In the television show 60 Minutes Wednesday, CBS will report that three members of the Carolina Panthers, including former Ravens center Jeff Mitchell, filled prescriptions for a banned steroid less than two weeks before they played in the Super Bowl in February 2004.
That revelation is expected to trigger intense scrutiny of the NFL's steroids policy, considered by some to be the most comprehensive program of its kind in professional sports.
Despite that reputation, the NFL's testing mechanism failed to catch Mitchell, former Carolina tackle Todd Steussie or punter Todd Sauerbrun after they allegedly filled prescriptions repeatedly.
Records obtained by CBS show that Steussie, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, obtained 11 prescriptions for testosterone cream over an eight-month period in 2004, and that Mitchell filled a testosterone prescription seven times.
According to the report, Sauerbrun not only received the testosterone cream, but also purchased syringes and Stanozolol, an injectable steroid also banned by the league.
The drugs reportedly were prescribed by Dr. James Shortt, a Columbia, S.C., doctor who is under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration for allegedly prescribing steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.
That development, coupled with last week's admission by New Orleans Saints coach Jim Haslett that as a player 25 years ago he experimented with steroids - before they were banned - raises anew the league's ability to control such drugs.
The league conducts year-round testing. Seven players per team per week are randomly tested during the season, including the playoffs. There is periodic testing in the offseason, and every player is tested for steroids at least once a year.
First-time users are suspended four games. There is a six-game suspension for a second positive test and a one-year ban for a third.
Opinions are divided on how strong the league's steroids program is.
"There are ocean-sized holes in drug testing that you could fit the Atlantic fleet and Pacific fleet through at the same time," said Steve Courson, a retired offensive lineman with the Pittsburgh Steelers and admitted steroids user in the NFL's pre-testing days.
"Growth hormones is an open door [for abuse]; designer steroids are an open door. But the NFL and all sporting federations are hampered by the fact they're using the same technology, and it is an ancient technology."
The NFL disagrees.
"We use the Olympic testing lab at UCLA, which has the most current technology," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "It's the lab that discovered the designer steroid THG, which we immediately added to our banned substance list.
"We are also funding the creation of a new laboratory, in conjunction with USADA [United States Anti-Doping Agency] in Salt Lake City, to conduct research and testing on performance-enhancing drugs."
Michael McCrary, a retired Ravens defensive end, said the testing procedures are stringent and that he was checked for steroids a dozen times in one year.
"I'm glad the test is as strict as it is because it makes for an even playing field," McCrary said. "The league is pretty clean as far as I know.
"This isn't baseball. The league's steroid testing policy is tough - tougher than the regular drug-testing policy. As far as steroids, you can be tested as many as 15 times a year."
Congress generally has supported the NFL's drug-testing policies, particularly compared with baseball's more lenient punishments for steroid abuse.
Adolpho Birch, the NFL's counsel for labor relations, appeared at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on March 11 and was praised for the league's mandatory four-game suspension for a first violation.
"Football has stronger penalties [than baseball] and everyone agrees its program has worked," Sen. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican and former baseball pitcher, said on March 17 at a House Government Reform Committee hearing on steroids in baseball.
Nevertheless, the two Carolina offensive linemen allegedly were able to avert those tests and get 16 refills of their prescriptions over an eight-month period. That serves as a red flag for David Black, a forensic toxicologist who helped the NFL establish its drug-testing program in the 1980s.
Black told CBS the league's failure to detect steroids in any of the three Panthers indicates a flawed program.
"If this continued to go on, under the umbrella of that program, then that program needs to be reevaluated ... and have some substantial improvement," Black said.
The league began testing for banned substances in 1987 for research purposes and began suspending players for steroid use in 1989. Random testing started in 1990 and a formal policy was written into the league's collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association in 1993.
Dr. Gary Wadler, a clinical associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, said the NFL's steroids program is similar to the Olympic program, and is very comprehensive.
"Is it perfect? No," he said. "[But] I think football has a pretty good program. In the long view, I think professional sports is going to have to go the way of the Olympics and get out of the drug business, and farm it out to an outside agency."
Wadler said that while testosterone testing is difficult, Stanozolol "lights up like a Christmas tree in testing ... That's an IQ failure."
The league says it plans to improve screening for testosterone, but acknowledges there is no reliable test for human growth hormone.
In tonight's report, Mignon Simpson, one of Shortt's former employees, says she supplied HGH to "possibly a half dozen" professional football players. Simpson said she made some of those shipments.
"The amount and dosage ... I don't recall," she said, "but I know when things cost ... [a] couple of thousand dollars, that's not a little bit."
Sun staff writers Mike Preston and Jeff Barker and the Associated Press contributed to this article.