"Itseems¬†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 strictestin sports, a foolproof policy that ensures that the league is clean. But itappears that there are cracks in the NFL's antidrug armor, and some playersknow it. Last month The Charlotte Observer reported that five Panthers wereissued prescriptions for banned steroids and/or human growth hormone between2002 and '04 and that none tested positive in the NFL's steroid program. (Onlyone of the players, tackle Todd Steussie, is still in the league.) And lastweek Redskins tackle Jon Jansen told HBO's Costas NOW that "maybe 15, 20percent" of NFL players are using illicit bodybuilding substances.
Last week newcommissioner Roger Goodell defended the NFL's testing program. (The leaguebanned HGH in 1991 but does not test for it.) "We have no indication thatwe have a significant issue with HGH," he said, "but that doesn't meanyou shouldn't approach it as aggressively as possible." SI promisedanonymity to five veterans with at least six years of pro experience last weekand asked, "Have you heard of any player using performance-enhancingsubstances in recent years?" All said no, though one added, "I haveheard guys talk about how it happens--that guys can use low doses of steroidsand stay under the testosterone limit."
The typical ratioof testosterone to epitestosterone (another hormone) in the male body is 1 to1. But the NFL's ratio for what it considers a failed steroid test is theOlympic standard of 4 to 1. A player could use testosterone-elevating steroidsbut stay under that ratio, allowing him to gain benefits from the drugs withoutfailing a test. As for HGH, science offers no reliable detection method andthere is widespread speculation that players are using it. Former Pro Bowldefensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, who failed a steroid test in 2003, toldCostas that 30% of the league's players use HGH.
The league hascommitted $500,000 to developing a urine test for HGH, but a dependable screenmay be years away, and it will probably require drawing blood. Though NFLPlayers Association executive director Gene Upshaw opposes blood testing, theplayers SI interviewed wouldn't close the door on the idea. "It'sincredibly invasive," said one NFC defensive end, "but as long as we'renot getting poked once a week, if it levels the playing field and if it allowsthe public to believe we're clean, I'd be in favor." For now, despite thecommissioner's assurances, the excitement of the new season is leavened by morethan a little suspicion.