With steroids easy to buy, testing weak and punishments inconsistent, college football in the United States is facing a serious doping problem.
Rules vary so widely that a university team with a strict no-steroid policy can face a team whose players have repeatedly tested positive, an investigation by the Associated Press has found.
Based on dozens of interviews with players, testers, dealers and experts and an analysis of weight records for more than 61,000 players, the investigation showed that while those running the sport believe the problem is under control, that is hardly the case.
The sport's near-zero rate of positive steroid tests is not an accurate gauge. Random tests provide weak deterrence and, by design, fail to catch every player using steroids. Universities also are reluctant to spend money on expensive steroid testing when cheaper ones for drugs like marijuana allow them to say they are doing everything they can to keep drugs out of the sport.
"It's nothing like what's going on in reality," said Don Catlin, an anti-doping pioneer who spent years conducting lab tests at UCLA.
Catlin said the collegiate system, in which players are often notified days before a test and many schools do not even test for steroids, was designed to not catch dopers.
That artificially reduced the number of positive tests.
The AP discovered thousands of players quickly putting on significant weight. It found more than 4700 players, or about 7 per cent of all players, who gained more than 9kg overall in a single year.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association attributes the decline in positive tests to its year-round drug testing programme, combined with anti-drug education and testing conducted by schools.
While the use of drugs in professional sports is a question of fairness, use among college athletes is also important as a public policy issue. Most top-tier football teams are from public schools that benefit from millions of dollars each year in taxpayer subsidies. Their athletes are essentially wards of the state. Coaches and trainers are government employees.
NCAA rules say players can be notified up to two days in advance of a test, which Catlin says is plenty of time to beat a test if players have designed the right doping regimen. Olympic athletes are given no notice.