The NFL and its players association agreed on a tougher steroid policy yesterday that will increase the number of random tests for each team, take more money from violators and add the drug erythropoietin (EPO) to the league's list of banned substances.
Longtime steroid experts supported many of the moves but said the NFL and other American pro leagues are dragging their feet in adopting the strictest measures possible.
"I think there are some positives, but I don't think it goes far enough," said Dr. Gary Wadler, a professor at New York University and member of the committee that determines banned substances for the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Wadler applauded the greater number of tests and the addition of an EPO ban but wondered why the league hasn't made provisions for the blood testing and freezing of samples that could eventually help it combat the use of human growth hormone.
Dr. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State epidemiologist, said the enhancements won't mean much until the NFL contracts with an outside agency to create a transparent testing system.
"We only know about the positive tests we're allowed to know about, so it's the fox guarding the henhouse," he said. "Until that changes, I don't pay a whole lot of attention to the other moves they make."
Under the new policy, the league will test 10 players per team per week instead of seven.
The agreement includes a few other key points:
All player samples will now be subject to random carbon isotope testing which can detect testosterone at much lower levels than the standard urine tests the league uses. The NFL had used carbon isotope testing only to confirm positive tests.
The league will invest $500,000 to help researchers develop better tests for hGH.
Players will lose prorated portions of their signing bonuses as punishment for failed tests.
"These latest improvements will help ensure that we continue to have a strong and effective program," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
The league has faced criticism this season because it seemed to escape much of the congressional and media scrutiny heaped on baseball in recent years.
One of its top defensive players, former Maryland star Shawne Merriman, was voted All-Pro despite sitting out four games for a positive steroid test. Merriman never received the pariah treatment delivered to baseball players such as Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds.
The NFL policy mandates a four-game suspension for a first offense and a year for a second, shorter penalties than those of the NBA and Major League Baseball.
The NFL is the first U.S. league to ban EPO, which has generally been associated with endurance sports, such as cycling and running. Wadler said he's not sure how beneficial the drug, which boosts red-blood-cell counts, would be to football players but said that's beside the point.
"It's an endurance drug that's been abused in a lot of sports, so of course it should be banned," he said.
Wadler has long encouraged U.S. pro leagues to adopt WADA's comprehensive banned list, which governs all Olympic sports and many professional sports overseas.
He said he's happy to see the NFL investing in the fight against hGH but said he's not optimistic that an effective urine test for the substance will be developed. That's why he hopes the NFL and other pro leagues will move toward blood testing.
"I would think they'd at least want language that establishes the principle," he said. "Even if you leave it in the closet for now as a practice."
Yesalis scoffed at the $500,000 grant, saying it's a drop in the torrent of cash needed for serious medical research.
"It's unbelievably inadequate for the job," he said. "You can buy some Scotch tape and a few rubber bands with it, but that's about it."