seems�like we're chasing a ghost," one NFL executive said last week,
referring to efforts to catch players who take banned performance enhancers.
For years the NFL has touted its drug testing program as one of the strictest
in sports, a foolproof policy that ensures that the league is clean. But it
appears that there are cracks in the NFL's antidrug armor, and some players
know it. Last month The Charlotte Observer reported that five Panthers were
issued prescriptions for banned steroids and/or human growth hormone between
2002 and '04 and that none tested positive in the NFL's steroid program. (Only
one of the players, tackle Todd Steussie, is still in the league.) And last
week Redskins tackle Jon Jansen told HBO's Costas NOW that "maybe 15, 20
percent" of NFL players are using illicit bodybuilding substances.
Last week new
commissioner Roger Goodell defended the NFL's testing program. (The league
banned HGH in 1991 but does not test for it.) "We have no indication that
we have a significant issue with HGH," he said, "but that doesn't mean
you shouldn't approach it as aggressively as possible." SI promised
anonymity to five veterans with at least six years of pro experience last week
and asked, "Have you heard of any player using performance-enhancing
substances in recent years?" All said no, though one added, "I have
heard guys talk about how it happens--that guys can use low doses of steroids
and stay under the testosterone limit."
The typical ratio
of testosterone to epitestosterone (another hormone) in the male body is 1 to
1. But the NFL's ratio for what it considers a failed steroid test is the
Olympic standard of 4 to 1. A player could use testosterone-elevating steroids
but stay under that ratio, allowing him to gain benefits from the drugs without
failing a test. As for HGH, science offers no reliable detection method and
there is widespread speculation that players are using it. Former Pro Bowl
defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, who failed a steroid test in 2003, told
Costas that 30% of the league's players use HGH.
The league has
committed $500,000 to developing a urine test for HGH, but a dependable screen
may be years away, and it will probably require drawing blood. Though NFL
Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw opposes blood testing, the
players SI interviewed wouldn't close the door on the idea. "It's
incredibly invasive," said one NFC defensive end, "but as long as we're
not getting poked once a week, if it levels the playing field and if it allows
the public to believe we're clean, I'd be in favor." For now, despite the
commissioner's assurances, the excitement of the new season is leavened by more
than a little suspicion.