Commentary

How U.S. sports measure up to the 'gold standard' of testing

Updated: May 23, 2008, 11:41 AM ET
By Mark Fainaru-Wada and T.J. Quinn | ESPN.com

Nobody wants to hear that testing for performance-enhancing drugs doesn't work -- least of all the professional and amateur sports organizations that have spent the past several years answering to Congress, insisting they want their fields to be clean.

However, as BALCO and other government probes have revealed, testing athletes for performance-enhancing substances can be an inexact science. In fact, some experts will say it's practically a crapshoot.

With that, ESPN.com assessed the performance-enhancing drug policies of six major professional sports, plus the NCAA, all measured against the so-called "gold standard" of testing for athletes in the Olympic movement.

Caveat No. 1: The gold standard has its limitations. The Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative scandal revealed many top-level track athletes who, despite using an array of banned drugs -- everything from testosterone to oxygen-boosting drug EPO to designer steroids to insulin -- passed tests with no problem. It wasn't until the federal government became involved and a steroid-laced syringe was provided to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that athletes began to get caught.

Caveat No. 2: Nobody is testing blood. For now, that eliminates any chance of catching somebody using human growth hormone.

Caveat No. 3: Even when a policy looks good on paper, its efficacy still depends on how well it is enforced in real time. The NFL, for example, previously didn't conduct as many tests as it claimed.

Caveat No. 4: All the leagues could get F's straight across the board, given the inherent flaws in testing and the remaining loopholes in many of the programs -- particularly NASCAR, the PGA, the NHL and the NBA. If you're not going to test in the offseason, it's all just window dressing. That said, the grading system below is based on a curve, comparing one policy to the next and measuring all against the Olympic testing scheme.

Among the issues or questions considered in doling out grades:

•  Does the sport have year-round, unannounced testing? Anti-doping experts and dopers alike agree that out-of-competition testing might be the most essential part of any drug policy. Most sophisticated dopers generally do the bulk of their drug use in the offseason, then maintain with smaller amounts as the season begins. A policy that does not test drug cheats when they are most likely to be doping is doomed from the start.

•  What kind of transparency is there to the program? In other words, does the sport publicly reveal exactly how many tests it conducted and whether the samples were collected in or out of competition (something USADA does quarterly)?

•  Does the sport's testing agency employ carbon isotope ratio (CIR) analysis, a more advanced examination of urine samples that can determine whether an athlete is taking synthetic testosterone?

•  Does the organization give its athletes any advance notice of an impending test?

•  In the world of doping, the ratio of testosterone-to-epitestosterone, the so-called T/E ratio, has become a central issue. The typical ratio for a person is 1:1, though there can be variations. The World Anti-Doping Agency rules state that anyone with a ratio above 4:1 can be considered to be doping.

NASCAR -- F

The weakest of the weak. Drivers and crew members sign contracts promising not to use illegal and/or banned drugs. NASCAR tests drivers only if it has "reasonable suspicion," which is defined as, among other things: when a competitor is caught or seen "with illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia" or when a competitor shows "signs, symptoms and/or behaviors known to accompany" drug or excessive alcohol use. Penalties are at the discretion of NASCAR.

Drivers have just as much incentive as any other athlete to take drugs that will increase their stamina and focus. And as pit crews seek to shave fractions of a second from their times, the crew members have plenty of incentive to take steroids to increase their strength and quickness.

NHL -- D-

No offseason testing, so this grade is generous. NHL players could use without fear from the end of the regular season (early April) through the start of training camps (early September) and would never have to worry about being tested on game days during the season. First positive test: 20-game suspension. Perhaps the most damning statements about the NHL's policy have come from the commissioner and the chief of the players' union, both of whom have stated there simply is no way, no how their sport has a drug problem.

Even with a couple of former players' stating they believed there was extensive use of performance enhancers in hockey, commissioner Gary Bettman recently demonstrated a lack of understanding about the effectiveness of testing and the drugs themselves. Bettman testified at a congressional hearing that he wasn't surprised so few players had tested positive "when one considers that the alleged benefits of steroid use -- significant large muscle development -- are not consistent with playing hockey at the highest level of the sport, and the resulting bulkiness attributable to steroid use simply is not a desired characteristic of skilled NHL players."

The past five years have exposed gold-medal winning sprinters, major league infielders, world-class cyclists, NFL running backs, and athletes of many more shapes and sizes as benefiting from performance-enhancing drugs. Surely, strength, endurance and speed, for example, would help a hockey player.

The NHL's lab conducts CIR testing, and the policy gives the league the option of seeking penalties through evidence obtained beyond an actual positive test. Amphetamines, though, are not on the league's prohibited substances list, and team trainers are told the evening before that testers will arrive at practice the next morning to collect samples.

PGA -- D-

After a seven-month "player-education process," the sport's first policy goes into effect July 7. Testing will be conducted only at tournaments, meaning that players won't have to worry about being tested on days they aren't competing and that most of the big names could use banned drugs with impunity during the 3½ months between seasons. Again, D- is kind.

The policy states that sanctions "may" call for players to be suspended for one year for a first positive test, five years for a second positive and permanently for a third positive. Ultimately, sanctions are at the discretion of the commissioner.

Also, the policy offers no details about what kind of transparency there will be to the PGA's program. Will the PGA annually report how many tests were conducted? Will it reveal if or when it begins doing out-of-competition testing? Will it address whether any players were tested more than once? A spokesman said the PGA wanted to get through the first half-year of the program before determining how much it would report publicly.

The policy indicates the PGA has the right to know the whereabouts of players at all times, but there is no suggestion, at this point, that players will be required to provide information about their itineraries 24/7. Regarding the T/E ratio, the PGA still uses the old threshold of 6:1.

On the plus side, the PGA has employed attorney and WADA board member Rich Young, a veteran in the anti-doping movement, to help with the development of its program. Young said the PGA policy would include CIR testing, as well as the option of seeking penalties through evidence obtained beyond an actual positive test.

NBA -- D

No offseason testing, so a D is more than charitable. The NBA is only slightly better than the NHL and PGA because it seems a little less in denial (though there remains a general insistence that performance-enhancing drugs aren't a part of the culture of the sport and wouldn't be of any value to these athletes). Players are subject to four tests per season, but samples are collected only at practices, game-day shootarounds or actual games -- meaning a player could use at his home knowing he won't be caught and could plan his in-season dosing to avoid periods when he might be tested.

The NBA does have a provision that allows it to go after players even in the absence of a positive test, and the policy requires the public identification of the specific substance when a player is caught. The NBA works with a WADA-accredited lab that performs CIR testing in certain situations.

Still, the penalties are weak: 10 games for a first positive, 25 for a second.

NCAA -- C

Admittedly, the NCAA has logistical issues none of the professional leagues has to face -- namely, more than 400,000 student-athletes covered under the policy. That said, the NCAA's policy is hardly airtight, and the organization has managed to glide below the radar on the steroids issue for years.

"If you want to nail a group that has gotten a total Get Out of Jail Free card from goofy politicians onward, it's the NCAA," says Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor emeritus and noted steroid expert who has researched the issue for years.

Because of the large number of athletes and the cost factor, many athletes can go through a year -- if not their careers -- without being tested. Rather than individuals, the NCAA states that each school will be tested at least once during the academic year. Of Division I schools that have football programs, 18 football players will be tested per year, plus another eight athletes total from other sports. If a school doesn't have a football program, eight students will be tested from the entire pool of the school's athletes.

Also, by designating institutions instead of individual athletes, the agency that tests on behalf of the NCAA provides schools with advance warning -- sometimes as much as 48 hours -- that doping control officers will be coming to campus to collect samples for testing. The NCAA works with the WADA-accredited lab at UCLA, which performs CIR testing in certain situations.

NFL -- B

In many ways, the NFL has been light-years ahead of every other pro league on this issue, implementing its testing program long before the others seriously considered doing so. All players are tested at least once during the season, although that test wouldn't reveal much because it comes every year at training camps. With players able to prepare for the collection of their samples, it is little more than an IQ test at that point. Each week, 10 players from each team are selected randomly to be tested, including in the postseason. Even so, players know they won't be tested on game days.

Players are subject to up to six out-of-season tests, and the league insists they are of the no-notice, knock-on-a-guy's-door variety. The league also says that it is testing players outside the country and that the lab it employs is conducting random CIR testing of NFL samples. Still, penalties are weak (four games for a first positive, eight games for a second), and the testing data isn't wholly transparent. The league does not issue an annual, detailed report about numbers of tests and results, however, a 2007 press release stated the NFL conducts 12,000 tests annually, and a spokesman told ESPN.com the number of offseason tests has "historically" been about "25 percent." Also, when a player tests positive, he is identified, although the specific drug he used is not revealed.

The NFL's biggest issue is follow-through. On paper, the policy addresses most of the potential loopholes. However, in 2006, the New York Daily News reported that players had a two-month window in which they weren't being tested and that samples were collected only at stadiums and/or training facilities. The NFL says it since has closed those loopholes.

With so much focus on Major League Baseball, the NFL has managed mostly to stay out of the steroid fray of recent years. That could change, though, as a steroid probe with NFL connections evolves in Texas and as the government continues its investigations of distributors throughout the country.

MLB -- B+

For years, though few seemed to want to listen, commissioner Bud Selig insisted baseball had the best steroids policy in all of sports. Now, four revisions later, he might actually be right.

As loopholes have been highlighted (and as Congress has squeezed incessantly), MLB frequently has responded. The policy now tests for more drugs than ever; penalties have been increased (50 games for a first positive, 100 for a second); offseason testing has been employed; the ability for players to receive exemptions for prescription drugs has become more limited; and CIR testing is employed.

The offseason program could be stronger, as only 10 percent of players will be tested under the new policy. Baseball still does not test players' blood, but if a viable test for HGH becomes available, it will be considered in an annual review period. How willing the union will be to allow blood testing and how hard MLB will be willing to push for it remains to be seen.

As with the NFL, baseball's two biggest issues are transparency and follow-through. Baseball says it collects information about where players are at all times in the offseason and promises that, under the new policy, a player can be tested anytime, anywhere in the world with no notice. On paper, the policy is strong, but whether the league will enforce it aggressively remains to be seen. Part of its new policy states that baseball will provide a full accounting of its testing annually. And as with the NFL, for a time, baseball also appeared to be testing only at stadiums and with players receiving some warning.

T.J. Quinn joined ESPN in November 2007 as an investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit, which is charged with developing long-form, investigative features to be presented across multiple platforms.