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 billions of dollars for teams.
Rules vary so widely that, on any given game day, a team with a strict no-ster-oid 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 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 such as 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 number of positive tests and keeps schools safe from embarrassing drug scandals.
Doug Calland, head trainer for the Ohio State football team, said the Buckeyes take such testing seriously.
“We test often, and we test for all the other stuff (performance enhancement and recreational drugs) out there as well,” Calland said. “As for ster-oids, we have a consistent procedure (of random testing), and we’ll actually target some guys that we think might be questionable or whatever.”
With 48 hours’ notice, “The NCAA came in and tested 20 of our guys just a couple of weeks ago on the performance stuff,” Calland said. “We haven’t had a problem.”
As for weight gain, there were no remarkable leaps among the Buckeyes in the past year. For example, linebacker Ryan Shazier did go from a playing weight of about 212 pounds as a freshman in 2011 to about 225 pounds, something Shazier attributes to the program he was put on by the team’s nutritionist.
“The way we train now, it’s almost the opposite of big-volume, heavy lifting and that type of stuff,” Calland said. “It’s more an emphasis on speed work, agility and those kinds of things.”
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 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 even 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.
But the 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.
In nearly all but the rarest cases of weight gain in the study, players were offensive or defensive linemen, hulking giants who tower above 6 feet 3 inches and weigh 300 pounds or more. Four of those players interviewed 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.
The study found that more than 4,700 players — or about 7 percent of all players — 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 as 80 pounds in a single year.
In at least 11 instances, players 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.
Looking only at the most significant weight-gainers, however, would ignore players such as Bryan Maneafaiga.
In the summer of 2004, Maneafaiga was an undersized 180-pound running back trying to make the Hawaii football team. Twice — once in the preseason 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 would occasionally inject the milky liquid into his buttocks the day before games.
“Food and good training will only get you so far,” he said.
Players are far more likely to be tested for drugs by their schools than by the NCAA. But while many schools have policies that give them the right to test for steroids, they often opt not to. Schools are much more focused on street drugs such as cocaine and marijuana. Depending on how many tests a school orders, each steroid test can cost $100 to $200, while a simple test for street drugs might cost as little as $25.
The top steroid investigator at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Joe Rannazzisi, said he doesn’t understand why schools don’t invest in the same kind of testing, with the same penalties, as the NFL. The NFL has a thorough testing program for most drugs, though the league has yet to resolve a long-simmering feud with its players union about how to test for human growth hormone.
“Is it expensive? Of course, but college football makes a lot of money,” Rannazzisi said. “Invest in the integrity of your program.”
For a school to test all 85 scholarship football players for steroids twice a season would cost up to $34,000, Catlin said, plus the cost of collecting and handling the urine samples. That’s about 0.2 percent of the average big-time-school football budget of about $14 million. Testing all athletes in all sports would make the school’s costs higher.
When schools ask Drug Free Sport for advice on their drug policies, Turpin said she recommends an immediate suspension after the first positive drug test. Otherwise, she said, “student-athletes will roll the dice.”
But drug use is a bigger deal at some schools than others.
At Notre Dame and Alabama, the teams that soon will compete for the national championship, players don’t automatically miss games for testing positive for ster-oids. At Alabama, coaches have wide discretion. Notre Dame’s student-athlete handbook says a player who fails a test can return to the field once the steroids are out of his system.
There are schools with tough policies. North Carolina kicks players off the team after a single positive test for steroids. Auburn’s student-athlete handbook calls for a half-season suspension for any athlete caught using performance-enhancing drugs.
Steroids are not hard to find. A simple Internet search turns up countless online sources for performance-enhancing drugs, mostly from overseas companies.
Maneafaiga, the former Hawaii running back, said his steroids came from Mexico. A friend in California, who was a coach at a junior college, sent them through the mail. But Maneafaiga thinks the consequences were nagging injuries. He found religion, quit the drugs and became the team’s chaplain.
“God gave you everything you need,” he said. “It gets in your mind. It will make you grow unnaturally. Eventually, you’ll break down. It happened to me every time.”
At the DEA, Rannazzisi said he has met with and conducted training for investigators and top officials in every professional sport.
He said he has offered similar training to the NCAA but never heard back.Dispatch sports reporter Tim May contributed to this story.