The recent revelations of steroid use by Navy football players highlight key gaps in the crusade to keep performance-enhancing drugs out of college sports.
Though the NCAA has tested for performance enhancers since 1986, only a small percentage of athletes face tests in a given year. That means drug prevention is largely up to individual schools.
As long as that's the case, drug experts say, there will be situations like Navy, where five football players admitted to taking androstendione but never tested positive and weren't subject to NCAA discipline.
Some schools are trying to close the gaps by instituting strict testing policies of their own. About 90 percent of Division I programs perform their own tests, but a survey of Atlantic Coast Conference schools suggests that the range of penalties is vast - from zero tolerance at North Carolina to counseling for a first offense at Maryland and Virginia.
Under University of Maryland policy, athletes are subject to random year-round testing. But first-time violators are subject only to counseling. Second-time offenders face a two-week suspension. Only on a third offense does an athlete face the year suspension the NCAA applies for a first offense.
The Navy scenario raised eyebrows in part because players who admitted to using banned substances were merely restricted to their dorms for punishment and weren't drug tested by the academy until more than two months later. By comparison, the U.S. Air Force Academy and U.S. Military Academy have said they would treat drug use uncovered by an investigation with penalties at least as harsh as the NCAA sanctions for a failed test.
Frank Uryasz, who oversees the NCAA testing program as president of the National Center for Drug Free Sport, defended the organization's use of random testing. The alternative would be too costly and time-consuming, he said. But the approach leaves room for cheaters to slip by.
"We're always trying to find the number to maximize deterrence while minimizing the number of tests," Uryasz said. "But we don't necessarily know the answer."
The latest round of NCAA testing, from the 2004-2005 season, turned up 51 positive steroid tests (39 of those in football) among 11,610 samples taken during the season and at championship events. That total is down from 90 positives in 10,769 samples taken two years earlier and similar totals in the late 1990s.
The NCAA does not test all athletes at the same rate. About 20 percent of Division I football players face tests in a given year but in 2004-2005, for example, only eight female golfers and 20 male tennis players were tested.
In basketball, the NCAA tests about 20 percent of the players from every team that makes its championship tournament. The NCAA has increased testing in baseball in recent years after its studies found increased numbers of players self-reporting.
Dr. Gary Wadler, a leading crusader against performance enhancers for decades, said the Navy situation made him think that the NCAA testing policy is due for scrutiny.
"If as an athlete, you knew the pool of those being tested would be small, it might lose its efficacy as a disincentive," he said. "The potential for those trying to play roulette with the system might be increased."
Say you're a Maryland baseball player and you want to use androstendione, the substance that helped Mark McGwire break Roger Maris' home run record. The NCAA tests for it, but in 2004-2005, it sampled 724 baseball players, less than 3 percent of the population.
You could also be randomly tested by Maryland. That's much more likely, though the school won't say exactly what percentage of athletes are tested in a given year. But even if they catch you, you can't be punished for a first offense, according to school policy.
"Our whole program is designed to be health- and safety-related, not punitive," said Charles Wellford, a criminology professor and chair of Maryland's Athletic Counsel.
College students experiment with drugs, he said, and they should be given a chance to learn the dangers before facing severe penalties. But the random nature of the testing (the same athlete could be tested three times in a year so there's no timing the cycle) dissuades violators, he added.
"I think the prohibitions we have are very powerful," Wellford said.
Few big names
Though steroid suspicions have become prevalent in pro sports, it's not clear that the public is ready to turn the same scrutiny on college athletes.
In 2004, a former NCAA Division I football player warned U.S. senators that steroid abuse has become increasingly widespread in college sports. "The temptation to use steroids is great because of the surrounding players who quite obviously have used drugs to gain physical strength," said the player, whose identity was concealed.
Last year, former Brigham Young lineman Jason Scukanec told the Portland Tribune that steroid use was still widespread at BYU and most other Division I programs.
But while Congress has often accused professional sports leagues of being lax on steroids, the lawmakers haven't focused as much on the NCAA. One reason is that college athletes' abuses have been overshadowed by those of big-name professionals and student privacy laws make it harder for the media to detail those violations.
In the wake of the Navy revelations, several lawmakers called for a deeper look at the academy's actions.
The NCAA began testing 20 years ago and it didn't take long to find the first offenders.
In 1987, flamboyant Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth and two teammates were suspended for the Orange Bowl after testing positive for anabolic steroids. LSU honorable mention All-American Roland Barbay was caught in the same early round of tests.
But few superstars have been suspended by the NCAA for drug offenses.
Uryasz said the collegiate ranks aren't a greater incubator than any other level for drug use.
"I'm convinced that the problem really has more to do with our conceptions of sportsmanship and fairness," Uryasz said. "And those values start to be instilled at the grade school level."
He's heartened by the declining number of positives turned up by NCAA testing.
"On the other hand, we're always looking to see what we might be missing," he said. "Probably the next big jump will be a test for growth hormone when it becomes available."
ACC gets strict
NCAA officials say they are thrilled that about 90 percent of Division I schools perform additional drug testing. Many have implemented stricter policies in the past few years.
Last fall, North Carolina imposed a zero-tolerance policy that would terminate an athlete's career at the school for a first steroid offense. It also announced that it would increase random tests by 50 percent.
"We felt like ... this policy should allow for young people to make mistakes and for us to have a policy and procedure in place to deal with that," UNC athletic director Dick Baddour said at the time. "But when it came to the integrity of the game, that we should take a hard line and get that message out."
A few months later, Duke said it would hit athletes with one-year suspensions for a first offense and lifetime bans for a second. Under the school's old policy, counseling and parental notification had been the sanctions for a first positive test.
Other ACC schools still give athletes more leeway
The University of Virginia had an independent testing system in place before the NCAA began its program. But the school doesn't necessarily hit athletes with long suspensions for a first offense.
"We consider the performance-enhancing drugs very similar to illicit recreational drugs," said Ethan Saliba, Virginia's assistant athletic director for sports medicine and head athletic trainer. "We go through the same procedures. We want to make sure [the athletes] are evaluated by substance-abuse counselors and physicians. They are required to go through educational experiences and are withheld [from competition] until testing shows they've recovered."
North Carolina State is another ACC school that tests independently for performance-enhancing substances. But Jon Fagg, the associate athletic director for compliance, said its penalties are not necessarily the same as for failing an NCAA test. A typical penalty might be six months, Fagg said.
Other schools can't be so aggressive. In Washington, for example, state institutions aren't legally permitted to test athletes for drug use.
Sun reporters Jeff Barker and Ken Murray contributed to this article.