Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

By Brent Schrotenboer
Updated: September 22, 2008

NFL SAN DIEGO – The list of 185 names contains players at every position, from every team, and from virtually every year over the past three decades.

There are 52 players with “Pro Bowl” on their resumes, and four who have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It is a list of NFL players linked to the use of performance-enhancing substances, and it also includes at least four championship teams that had multiple players: the 1963 AFL champion Chargers, the 2002 AFC champion Oakland Raiders, the 2004 NFC champion Carolina Panthers and the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four Super Bowls from 1974 through ’80.

With the nation’s most popular professional sports league three weeks into a new season — and with several players serving suspensions for positive tests — The San Diego Union-Tribune sought to compile the most comprehensive list to date of NFL players linked to performance-enhancing drugs.

It is the NFL equivalent of the Mitchell Report, the much-publicized assessment of performance-enhancing drug use in baseball released last December by former Sen. George Mitchell and mandated by Commissioner Bud Selig. That report had 85 names dating to about 1993.

Like the Mitchell Report, the Union-Tribune relied on hundreds of media reports, archives, plus public records and interviews with players and league personnel.

There are no bombshell names unveiled for the first time, nor is it considered comprehensive or proportional, just the best snapshot that could be provided through those sources.

It is believed to only scratch the surface of actual usage in pro football during that time, according to doping experts.

“If I had to venture to guess, you’re touching the tip of the iceberg,” said Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor emeritus and anabolic steroids expert. “Because of the secretive nature of all of it, it’s very difficult to come up with any kind of solid handle.”

Estimates from players over time have ranged from widespread use for certain teams in the 1960s and ’70s to as much as 75 percent of linemen, linebackers and tight ends in the 1980s. Washington Redskins offensive lineman Jon Jansen estimated in a 2006 HBO interview that 15 to 20 percent of players use performance-enhancing drugs. He later backed away from that guess. But if the estimates over time are accurate, the real number could be in the thousands, of which testing has caught a small portion.

Whatever the true number, drug testing in the NFL continues to be a polarizing topic.

The NFL was first among U.S. pro sports leagues to crack down on steroid use, suspending players as far back as 1989 – 15 years before baseball started. For this reason, it gets gold stars from anti-drug forces.

But some of those same experts still see shortcomings in the league’s drug-testing program. For example, there is no testing on game day, when players would take banned stimulants. Only 10 stimulants are on the NFL’s banned list, compared with more than 50 banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

The NFL also has resisted adopting the WADA testing program and protocols, considered to be far more detailed and at the cutting edge of anti-doping efforts. And first-time violators are suspended for four games by the NFL, compared with two years by WADA.

“I’m suggesting this is so complex, so far beyond the pay grade of anybody in professional sports, that they really need to externalize it and get out of the (drug-testing) business and leave it to the people who know what they’re doing,” said Gary Wadler, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List and Methods Sub-Committee.

Wadler said he suspects the NFL wants to administer its own testing program the way it sees fit for one reason.

“It’s a loss of control, particularly when it’s superstars who fill their seats,” he said. “They’re probably petrified of a two-year or four-year suspension of their superstars, given the monetary issues in these professional sports.”

The NFL disagrees. Adolpho Birch, the league’s vice president of law and labor policy, notes that the NFL was testing for these drugs long before WADA was even formed in 2000.

He notes that the league does 12,000 drug tests a year on about 2,000 players, compared with 4,500 by WADA and the International Olympic Committee at the Olympics, where there were about 11,000 athletes.

Birch said it would be difficult to do game-day testing because of “the nature of team travel” after games. He said NFL testing accounts for game-day stimulant use by testing the next day with a lower threshold for what would be considered a positive stimulant test.

As for the number of banned substances on the NFL list, Birch said, “What we have been able to do is determine what things are relevant and apt to be used by our players. We put those on our list.”

Birch also disputes that WADA could be any more of an expert on the issue than the NFL. “We have experts in the field, the same experts they consult, the same laboratories,” he said.

The Union-Tribune list only involves drugs now classified by the league as performance-enhancing or “steroids and related substances” (steroids, ephedra, amphetamines), not cocaine, marijuana or alcohol.

Forrest Tennant, the NFL’s former drug adviser, said “we will never know” the true extent of such drug use in the league. It’s become a taboo subject for players to talk about publicly. Many key witnesses from the early years have died.

Before 1983, when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle banned steroids, “athletes openly took them,” Tennant said. “But once sanctions began, nobody wanted to talk about it.”

In some cases, the players used or obtained the drugs in college as part of an effort to make it to the NFL. Others used the drugs in an effort to keep their careers alive. For every named player, there likely are several others who used and weren’t caught or didn’t admit it, Tennant said.

“We have a history, and we recognize that history particularly leading up to the time the policy came in,” Birch said. “That history is what led to the players’ union and league coming together in determining we needed to have an effective steroid policy. We have been extremely proactive as it relates to any testing organization. We’ve banned things like ephedra before the government got to them. When we see issues, we deal with them.”