Canadian Steroid Scandal Raises Questions -- Is It Happening in the States?
The athletic department Bob Copeland runs at the University of Waterloo has a budget a fraction of what you'd find at major NCAA Division I programs. His football players, at best, shoot for an invite to the Canadian Football League combine. The school's stadium holds 5,400 counting the standing-room-only section.
"The whole financial structure of collegiate sports in Canada is apples and oranges to what you have," said Copeland, the athletic director at the college located outside Toronto. "College football alone in the U.S. involves billions of dollars. We're not even in the conversation."
Waterloo, however, is big time in one dubious respect: the school was the site of the biggest steroids scandal in North American collegiate sports history. One of its football players allegedly trafficked steroids and human growth hormone, a finding that led the school to test all 62 players. Nine turned up positive for performance-enhancing drugs, including the first positive for human growth hormone on the continent. Copeland and school officials announced in June they would cancel the 2010 season.
So, if it can happen at a university known more for its engineering school than athletics, in a country where football falls below hockey in popularity, why not here?
"There has to be steroid use going on underneath the radar," said Don Hooton, whose son, Taylor, a high school pitcher in Plano, Texas, committed suicide on July 15, 2003, after he abruptly halted a cycle of steroids. "It's happening at a Canadian university that is the nation's equivalent to MIT and you're saying it can't happen at UCLA or Texas? Look how popular college football is in this country. If there was that much use going on at a school like that, are we missing something?"
Mary Wilfert, NCAA associate director for education outreach, said stemming the use of performance-enhancing drugs is as high a priority for the organization, on par with other plagues -- like points shaving and kickbacks given to student-athletes by boosters -- that can throw off the competitive balance.
"I would say the NCAA has always taken any kind of cheating seriously," Wilfert told FanHouse. "We've been concerned about (doping) since we started the testing program in 1986. It's a very substantial program with very substantial penalties."
Historically, well under one percent of athletes tested under the NCAA program have come back positive for steroids. There were 13,569 tests conducted during the 2008-09 academic year, the most recent that statistics available, and there were 53 steroid positives.
Testing for colleges north of the border is conducted by the government-funded Canadian Center for Ethics in Sport. The program arguably is more strenuous than what the NCAA employs because it adheres to the World Anti-Doping Code used for Olympic sports. But despite the higher standards, Canada's numbers mirror what the NCAA found with its testing.
"I think it shows even if you aren't turning up many doping violations with your current testing program, you can still have a problem," Canadian Center for Ethics in Sport President and CEO Paul Melia said. "You still need to continue to ask yourself, 'Are we doing the right type of testing at the right time?' That involves a lot more out-of-season testing and home visits. They have to be strategically targeted."
The NCAA tests heavily in football, spokesman Christopher Radford said. At least 18 players on a Division I team and 12 on a Division II team are tested each season. Eighteen players from each team participating in a BCS bowl game will be tested, but the tests won't be carried out until within 48 hours of each game.
"We have to be more sophisticated and we can no longer rely on athletes making mistakes," Melia said. "We often say that only the dumb athletes get caught during in-competition testing."
The NCAA, whose program is carried out by the company Drug Free Sport, does do out-of-competition testing, including some at student-athletes' homes in the offseason. Some conferences, like the Big Ten and Big 12, and about half of the athletic programs also put athletes through their own testing regimens, although a good portion of those schools only test for drug abuse like cocaine and marijuana.
Wilfert said the NCAA program is reviewed twice a year by an advisory panel and the organization aims to make testing less predictable.
"We can't test everybody all the time," Wilfert said. "That's where the deterrent factor comes in. We will test whomever and test in different numbers (of athletes at a school) each time. We could be on campus more often than we are now."
The NCAA, however, is unable to use one of the biggest deterrents to using performance-enhancing drugs: getting stigmatized as a user in the media. The Federal Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents the NCAA -- or any of the conferences or schools that perform additional testing -- from announcing a player tested positive for drugs. (Once announced, athletes are typically given one-year bans).
Hooton advocates getting FERPA amended to allow the disclosure of student-athletes flagged for doping.
"First, these are adults," said Hooton, who recently traveled to Canada to speak to several college coaches. "Second, they're violating the law. Forget the rules for a moment and focus on the law. It's a felony in most jurisdictions. We should be turning these adults over to authorities. Why are we keeping it a secret?"
Victor Conte, the founder of Bay Area Lab Co-Operative (BALCO), said another huge hole in testing is the lack of accountability for those players seeking to turn pro. From the time a player has competed in his final collegiate game until the NFL scouting combine – a span that can be anywhere between seven weeks to three months --- players are not subject to testing.
"They know all they have to do is taper off right before they are tested at the combine," said Conte, who continues to market his SNAC line of sports supplements. "Guys who may not even be tempted to use during their college careers see the combine as an opportunity for a huge payday. They want to perform because they know cutting a few tenths off their 40 time could mean tens of thousands of more dollars."
Canada has the U.S. beat there, too. The Canadian Interuniversity Sport, its version of the NCAA, is in the process of developing a program along with the CFL that will test between 80 to 100 of the nation's top college players who are turning pro leading up to the CFL's combine.
Marg McGregor, the CEO of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, said zeroing in on the top athletes is the easy part. But what officials realized that Waterloo's top players weren't, for the most part, was the ones who were caught doping.
"It wasn't who you'd expect to be using steroids," McGregor said. "We still don't know a whole lot about the motivation or the culture of doping in football. We found it was not just the studs and the rising stars aspiring to go to the next level. It was often the kids who barely made the team or were looking to avoid being redshirted. Some wanted more playing time."
Copeland admitted that if he'd have been able to pick the players he thought were possibly using, he would have only identified one or two correctly.
It's those kinds of insights that could prove valuable for the NCAA, but nobody at the organization has picked up the phone to call anybody at Waterloo, the Center for Ethics in Sport or Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
Copeland also said he hasn't heard from the University of Miami, a school that recently had an incident that was very similar to how the scandal broke out at his school. Miami baseball player Frankie Ratcliff was arrested in September after he allegedly sold marijuana to undercover officers. A search conducted at his apartment turned up more marijuana and 19 vials of steroids.
Wilfert said the NCAA doesn't have the authority to carry out such targeted testing on its own, leaving Miami or the Atlantic Coast Conference on the hook. Neither entity appears to have taken the any additional steps like Waterloo. Mike Finn, a spokesman for the ACC, said the conference doesn't carry out its own testing and Miami spokesman Christopher Freet declined to comment.
"Where there's smoke, there's usually fire," Copeland said in relation to his own case.