When the University of Florida held a press conference on Oct. 12 and announced the year-long suspension of quarterback Will Grier because of a positive NCAA-administered test for performance enhancing drug (PEDs), it was a rare public spectacle.
How rare? Less than 1 percent rare.
Mary Wilfert, who runs the NCAA’s drug-testing program, said 11,146 student-athletes were tested by the NCAA in 2014. There were 172 positive tests. Of those positive tests, 103 were for PEDs, and 55 were for the more serious doping/anabolic steroids.
There are approximately 420,000 athletes under the NCAA umbrella. The tests are heavily slanted to monitor football players, Wilfert said, but the NCAA did not provide data of how many of the positive PED tests were from football players.
Schools say they also drug test athletes for PEDs, but their data is closely guarded. Some drug-testing experts question just how diligent schools are at catching PED users on their own, without the NCAA looking over their shoulders.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said he has had one player test positive for PEDs since he has been a head coach. Pinkel has been a head coach since 1991. That is probably not uncommon among Division I coaches.
The SEC, and other major conferences, do not have a conference-wide policy on drug testing that is tied to NCAA guidelines. The conferences leave it up to each school to drug test for PEDs and it is not clear if all of the positive results from school tests for PEDs are reported to the NCAA.
The positive test for PEDs is made more rare because players can take “masking agents” to cover up their drug use, according to Dr. Charles Yesalis, professor emeritus at Penn State University, an epidemiologist who has studied drugs in sports for 40 years. Yesalis said it is also common for college athletes to be warned of a pending test.
Schools have drug testing policies, but do not necessarily follow their own rules. Last April, the NCAA charged Oklahoma State with violations because the school, from 2008 to 2012, “did not follow its own written policies and procedures for students who tested positive for banned substances.”
Still, Wilfert insists the NCAA drug test is a deterrent. Athletes may be covering up their PED use with masking agents, but she said education programs at every school are also helping keep athletes off PEDs, which can be found in a variety of over-the-counter supplements.
Indeed, one of the first things athletes are told when they arrive on campus is that supplements bought in various vitamin or health stores may be “spiked” with a PED to make them more effective. Athletes are told to have every supplement they take cleared by the school’s sports medicine staff, which can test them for banned substances.
“Some you don’t get to, they don’t believe the message, they don’t hear the message, but for the most part we know the majority of our student athletes are not using performance-enhancing drugs,” said Wilfert, who is the Associate Director of the NCAA Sport Science Institute. “(We know) some are using because we are testing and catching them.”
The NCAA spends $5 million a year with the National Center for Drug Free Sport for random drug testing, specifically trying to deter users of performance-enhancing drugs in dietary supplements and the serious dopers of anabolic steroids. The NCAA had total revenue of $989 million in the 2014 fiscal year, so $5 million isn’t much. But it is a stick to wield, nonetheless.
The NCAA surveys 20,000 student-athletes about drug use every four years. Sixty percent of athletes surveyed said the NCAA’s random testing is a deterrent, Wilfert said.
Missouri’s Pinkel said his players are told they are not permitted to take any dietary supplement without clearance by the athletic training staff.
Every Football Bowl Subdivision football program is tested once a year by the NCAA, Wilfert said. There are at least 18 players randomly selected off an FBS football squad list. Some FBS football teams are tested two and three times a year. The NCAA can give short notice and no-notice testing, Wilfert said. Teams can be tested year-round.
There is a significant difference between NCAA testing and school testing when it comes to punishment. If Florida had caught Grier, he would have been suspended for 50 percent of his team’s competition. Considering Florida had played six games, Grier could have returned for the start of the 2016 season. As it is, he is suspended until October, 2016 because the NCAA caught him.
Grier can practice with the team, but he cannot travel.
Here is the list of what the NCAA tests for:
- Diuretics and other masking agents
- Peptide Hormones and Analogues Anti-Estrogens
- Beta-2 Agonists
- Anabolic Agents
- Beta Blockers (banned for rifle only)
- Diuretics and other masking agents
- Street Drugs
- Peptide Hormones and Analogues
If the NCAA had tested Grier and found a street drug/party drug, it still would have been a year suspension from competition, and loss of a year of eligibility, as per NCAA rules, the same as a PED. Testing for marijuana is less expensive than testing for steroids, Wilfert said, because of all the protocols of securing the specimen (urinalysis) required in testing for anabolic steroids and PEDs.
Some SEC schools attempted in 2013 to institute a conference-wide policy during its summer meeting, but it went nowhere. An SEC athletic director said recently there is “no love” for the policy.
There is also no love among schools to talk about PEDs and their drug testing policies.
Mississippi State had no comment when a request was made to interview its athletic training staff about PED testing. UGA had no comment. A Florida spokesman referred a reporter to its drug-testing policy. Tennessee said its athletic training staff declined interview requests.
How often are they testing their football players for PEDs? There was no response from schools.
On the other hand, the SEC got tough on domestic violence after a player that was kicked off the UGA team for domestic violence was allowed to play for Alabama. The SEC passed this rule this last spring:
“A transfer student-athlete who has been subject to official university of athletics department disciplinary action at any time during enrollment at any previous collegiate institution (excluding limited discipline applied by a sports team or temporary disciplinary action during an investigation) due to serious misconduct (as defined herein) shall not be eligible for athletically-related financial aid, practice or competition at an SEC member institution.”
The SEC is involved in many issues on campus, notably compliance and how violations of NCAA rules are reported back to the conference office. The conference is also involved in media rights deals, and academic/athletic awards.
But as far as drug testing, it is up to the schools, and penalties for a positive test vary widely, as a Wall Street Journal Report discovered last spring.
Yesalis said conferences like the SEC and the NCAA need to spend more on drug testing because it is apparent they are not catching enough cheaters.
“Less than 1 percent,” Yesalis said when told of the number of NCAA busts for PEDs in 2014. “If the NCAA was serious they would test more often and they would put more money into it. “This idea testing is too expensive for the schools doesn’t make sense. Last time I checked Penn State, for example, had a $100 million athletic budget.”
Yesalis said it is absurd to believe that the NCAA and schools are effectively screening for anabolic steroids and other PEDs.
How is he so certain?
It is research and it is this: “Look at the size of these players,” Yesalis said. “God did not change the recipe in the last 100 years.”
Still, the NCAA drug test is a deterrent to PED use. It might be a modest deterrent to some people, but Grier was the starting quarterback for the No. 8 team in the country and the Gators do not have him because of an NCAA test.
Ray Glier is the author of How The SEC Became Goliath (Simon & Schuster/Howard). His work has appeared in The New York Times and USA TODAY, among others.