Oft-ignored warning signs

Performance-enhancing drugs are in the news again. Oh joy.

If it's not Richard Sherman (exonerated) or various Hall of Fame candidates (blacklisted, apparently), then it's this: an investigation by The Associated Press that revealed the startling weight gains of college football players.

I know -- weight gain among college-age young men is about as surprising as the hourly Tim Tebow update. Dorm food has been an accelerant of weight gain, wanted and unwanted, for as long as there have been colleges.

But the AP report, which passed largely without comment this past week, is a strangely interesting look at a potentially significant problem. When a handful of 20-year-old linemen pack on 50-75 pounds in the course of a year, there's at least the appearance of a PED problem in college football. There are, of course, many plausible explanations for this. Some players come from backgrounds where food isn't as plentiful as it is in college; coaches recruit large-framed kids who are expected to fill out over the years; strength and conditioning programs are far more advanced in the worst Division I program than in the best high school. Plus, kids are still developing in college; it's not as if they tacked on 30 pounds of lean muscle and two hat sizes at age 36.

But it's clear from the AP's work that college football players are pretty much free to use steroids without fear of discovery or penalty. That's the main takeaway, and the widespread shrug it elicited could be indicative of a general fatigue when it comes to the issue. Or it could be this: People who care about sports have a strange, conflicted relationship with the issue of performance-enhancing drugs. It breaks down by sport: A great number of fans are hysterical scolds when it comes to PEDs in baseball, enablers when it comes to football.

When a superstar baseball player such as Ryan Braun gets popped (before being exonerated) for PEDs, everyone screams and yells and wonders whether he should be stripped of his MVP. When a significant NFL player such as Seattle DB Brandon Browner gets popped, everyone wonders how it's going to affect his team this weekend.

This is the crazy season for baseball PED hysterics. Baseball Hall of Fame ballots must be postmarked by Monday, and many voters have made it clear they won't vote for certain players (Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza) for reasons as flimsy as physical features. Here's how the logic works: Many sluggers of the era took steroids, Piazza was a slugger of the era, therefore, Piazza took steroids. It's a syllogism that doesn't pass even the most basic rhetorical test. Yes, but also back acne.

In the NFL, players don't even come under scrutiny after a failed test. In fact, thanks to a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that prohibits league or team officials from revealing the substance that caused the failed test, a player can simply announce that he tested positive for Adderall and be done with it. And so, predictably, the recent spate of positive tests for "Adderall" spawned a bunch of allegedly investigative pieces on the prevalence of Adderall among football players. Did everyone who said he tested positive actually test positive for Adderall? Maybe, but it seems likely the Adderall scourge in the NFL is overblown at best, fictional at worst.

The AP's look at college football players seems tangentially related to the lack of journalistic scrutiny afforded baseball's steroid problem in the heyday of McGwire-Sosa-Bonds-Palmeiro-etc. There was so much self-flagellation in the baseball-writing community (it's a little suburb outside Detroit where everyone wears Dockers and hates pitchers who throw to first) over the issue that it might as well have been an Opus Dei convention.

It was right in front of our eyes.


Oh, we are all complicit.


Anyway, the point is, the AP's look at steroids in college football has the feel of a pre-emptive strike, even though we know that steroids have been a factor -- sometimes systematically through team doctors -- in college football since before Tony Mandarich invented the pancake block. It's the kind of thing nobody bothered to do in 1998 -- a restrained, reasoned look at a problem that's tough to address without hysteria or reckless accusation. The idea is to identify a problem before it blows up into a how-did-we-miss-this referendum on the profession.

But, inevitably, it highlights many of the reasons there weren't many probing journalistic investigations in the late '90s. It's hard to devise a method of quantifying steroid use without access to test results. It's even tougher when the testing process is weak, decentralized and infrequent.

The AP reporters reviewed weights of 61,000 players and conducted interviews with players, coaches, testers and steroid dealers. Cumulatively, they raise several red flags.

The inconsistencies in the testing process present a huge problem. On many Saturdays, according to the report, teams with strict, regular testing play teams with almost no testing. (Some schools ban a player for a year after one positive test; others -- UCLA is one -- allow for three. Notre Dame allows a player to return to the field as soon as testing shows no drugs remain in his system.) This creates an environment that is not only unfair but unsafe. The volatile mood swings and violent outbursts of steroid users -- especially unregulated steroid users -- can put every player on the field at risk. Instead of investing in expensive PED testing, colleges put more emphasis on testing for street drugs such as marijuana to create the appearance of a legitimate testing program. And it's no mere coincidence that marijuana and cocaine pose more of a threat in the minds of the big-time donors.

Some schools even have voluntary testing. Imagine being the guy in charge of administering all the voluntary tests. That might be the loneliest -- and easiest -- job in the world.

Clint Oldenburg, a former NFL offensive lineman who played at Colorado State, gained almost 80 pounds in four years, including 53 in one year alone. He told the AP he didn't take steroids but was surprised at how many of his teammates did. An Iowa State lineman gained 81 pounds between high school and his sophomore year in college, yet was never tested under the school's "reasonable suspicion" testing.

High school kids are getting and using steroids with the complicit approval of their parents and coaches. This isn't news. Middle-aged rec-league cyclists are taking PEDs to improve their times and beat their buddies in weekend races. To think that a significant number of college athletes in a billion-dollar business with hopes of professional riches aren't willing to get an illegal edge is ludicrous. Of course they are, especially when there's little to no fear of getting caught.

But college linemen don't have hallowed records to break or a bizarrely sanctified hall of fame run by a chosen priesthood of voters. They're just faceless guys wearing helmets and abusing their bodies for the entertainment of many and the profit of some.