By MARY PILON
Published: January 5, 2013
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A wall in one of the conference rooms at the National Center for Drug Free Sport displays magazine covers, each capturing a moment in the inglorious history of doping scandals in sports.
he images show Ben Johnson, the sprinter who lost his 1988 Olympic gold medal after testing positive; and Barry Bonds, the tarnished home run king; and Lyle Alzado, one of the first pro football players to admit to steroid use.
“People always assume that it’s the athletes at the top of their sport or the top of their game that are using,” said Frank Uryasz, Drug Free Sport’s founder and president. “But I can assure you that’s not the case. There’s always that desire to be the best, to win. That permeates all level of sport — abuse where you just wouldn’t expect it.”
Over the past quarter-century, athletes like Johnson, Bonds and Alzado stirred widespread concern about doping in sports.
Steve Hebert for The New York Times
Professional leagues without drug-testing programs have put them in; leagues with drug-testing programs have strengthened them. Congress and medical experts have called on sports officials at all levels to treat doping like a scourge.
It was in this budding American culture of doping awareness that Uryasz found a niche business model. He has spent the past decade selling his company’s services to the country’s sports officials.
The company advises leagues and teams on what their testing protocols should look like — everything from what drugs to test for to how often athletes will be tested to what happens to the specimens after testing. It also handles the collection and testing of urine samples, often with the help of subcontractors.
Drug Free Sport provides drug-testing programs for high school, college and professional leagues.
A privately held company with fewer than 30 full-time employees, it counts among its clients Major League Baseball, the N.F.L., the N.B.A., the N.C.A.A. and about 300 individual college programs.
Monica Almeida/The New York Times
Many, if not all, of the players on the field Monday night for the Bowl Championship Series title game between Alabama and Notre Dame have participated in a drug-testing program engineered by Drug Free Sport.
Uryasz says his company’s programs provide substantial deterrents for athletes who might consider doping.
Critics, however, question how rigorous the company’s programs are. They say Drug Free Sport often fails to adhere to tenets of serious drug testing, like random, unannounced tests; collection of samples by trained, independent officials; and testing for a comprehensive list of recreational and performance-enhancing drugs.
The critics, pointing to a low rate of positive tests, question Drug Free Sport’s effectiveness at catching athletes who cheat. Since the company began running the N.C.A.A.’s drug-testing program in 1999, for example, the rate of positive tests has been no higher than 1 percent in any year — despite an N.C.A.A. survey of student-athletes that indicated at least 1 in 5 used marijuana, a banned substance. (The N.C.A.A. tests for marijuana at championship competitions but not in its year-round program.)
Uryasz said the rate of positive tests was not meaningful. “I don’t spend a lot of time on the percent positive as being an indicator of very much,” he said.
Independent doping experts contend that having a contract with Drug Free Sport allows sports officials to say they take testing seriously without enacting a truly stringent program.
Don Catlin, the former head of U.C.L.A.’s Olympic Analytical Lab, best known for breaking the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative doping ring, oversaw the testing of many of Drug Free Sport’s urine samples when he was at U.C.L.A. He said the work by Drug Free Sport and similar companies could be used to mislead fans.
“The problem with these schools is they all want to say they’re doing drug testing, but they’re not really doing anything I would call drug testing,” he said.
A Company’s Origins
Uryasz said he became interested in working with student-athletes while tutoring them as an undergraduate at Nebraska. After he graduated, he earned an M.B.A. from Nebraska and worked in health care administration in Omaha. He said he heard about an opening at the N.C.A.A. through a friend.
Driven in part by scandals in professional sports, the N.C.A.A. voted at its 1986 annual convention to start a drug-testing program.
That year, Uryasz joined the N.C.A.A. and began to build a drug-testing staff based at the organization’s headquarters near Kansas City, Mo. Soon afterward, Len Bias, an all-American basketball player at Maryland, died of a cocaine overdose.
“It was an interesting time,” Uryasz said. “There was a real concern about the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs in sports.”
During his 13 years at the N.C.A.A., Uryasz expanded the drug-testing program to include year-round testing. He joined the board of the United States Olympic Committee’s antidoping organization, which led to the formation of the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
In 1999, the N.C.A.A. moved its headquarters to Indianapolis, but Uryasz stayed behind to start Drug Free Sport.
He signed the N.C.A.A. as its first client. Several of Uryasz’s colleagues from the N.C.A.A. joined him at the new company in Kansas City.
“I had decided to stay here and start a company that would work with the colleges and universities and their drug-prevention programs,” Uryasz said. “I was doing that on the N.C.A.A. staff to a certain degree, but you really can’t have that kind of relationship with the individual colleges because you’re still wearing that N.C.A.A. hat.
“So I thought it was a real opportunity and I saw that drug testing was continuing to grow.”
The N.C.A.A. transferred administration of its drug program to Drug Free Sport “to provide independent administration and transparency,” according to a 2010 N.C.A.A. presentation tied to its annual conference. Drug Free Sport is involved in helping the N.C.A.A. develop its policy, put in the program and report results back to the organization.
With the N.C.A.A. as its anchor client, Drug Free Sport began to expand. Its quiet Kansas City offices were divided into two parts: one for the collegiate business, the other for professional leagues.
Drug Free Sport offers programs that test both for “street drugs” like marijuana and cocaine and for performance-enhancing drugs. It competes with a few other companies, including some that focus on workplace testing rather than testing for performance-enhancing drugs.
Aegis Sciences Corporation, a lab based in Nashville, has several sports clients, including some colleges. Through a spokeswoman, the head of Aegis, Dr. David Black, declined to comment on Drug Free Sport.
As a privately held company, Drug Free Sport does not disclose its annual revenue.
Deal Worth Millions
What started as a modest expense for the N.C.A.A. has turned into one of the biggest drug-testing contracts in sports. In 2009, the N.C.A.A. spent $5.5 million on drug-prevention programs — $4.6 million on testing and the rest on education.
In a recent academic year, more than 13,500 samples were analyzed by Drug Free Sport, randomly selected from a pool of 400,000 student-athletes nationwide.
Because Drug Free Sport is paid millions by the N.C.A.A. to administer the program and shares its roots with the organization, critics have argued that the relationship has conflicts of interest.
“You look at the money involved in collegiate sports and the potential earnings out there, then think about the availability of these drugs, and it’s of great concern,” said Charles Yesalis, a professor emeritus of health policy and administration at Penn State. “There are significant loopholes.”
The arrangement between the N.C.A.A. and Drug Free Sport “gives schools plausible deniability,” Yesalis said. “They can say, ‘We ran a test, we did it.’ And the huge majority of fans of college and professional sports don’t really care. They have no idea.”
Mary Wilfert, the N.C.A.A.’s associate director of health and safety, said the relationship was free of conflicts. “They are a distinct company that conducts sports drug testing,” she said.
Uryasz said: “We’re a trusted adviser. We tell them what they need to do. Now, organizations don’t always follow the advice of their trusted advisers, but it’s not a difficult position to be in. That’s why we’re here. We’re here to help them, and they expect us to tell them if there are areas that need to be modified or changed.”
In the 2010-11 academic year, 10,735 athletes were tested in the N.C.A.A.’s year-round program, according to data released by the organization. There were 63 positive tests, or 0.6 percent.
But the N.C.A.A.’s drug-use survey and interviews with coaches, trainers and players indicated that the percentage of student-athletes who used drugs during the testing period might have been much higher.
“You’re not getting positives because they’re not doing real testing,” said Catlin, the former head of U.C.L.A.’s Olympic Analytical Lab. “The athletes know when the tests are going to take place. They get sick or they don’t show up. They’re not testing for the right things.” He added that the groups had an incentive to collect few positive tests.
Don Hooton has been an outspoken advocate for more stringent drug testing in sports since his son Taylor, a 17-year-old high school pitcher in Plano, Tex., committed suicide in 2003 shortly after he stopped using steroids. Hooton oversees a foundation bearing his son’s name that focuses on drug prevention.
“I would almost rather see no testing at all,” Hooton said in response to the low rate of positive tests at the college level. He said that many drug-testing programs satisfied public relations concerns rather than scientific or health-related ones. “All these negative tests lead us to the conclusion that there’s no drug problem.”
Wilfert, the N.C.A.A. official, said testing was “just one part of deterring drug use.” She cited a 2009 N.C.A.A. survey in which 55 percent of student-athletes said they agreed or strongly agreed that testing deterred athletes from using drugs.
Another area of criticism among independent doping experts is notification. A truly rigorous antidoping program, they say, must have random, unannounced testing so that athletes do not have time to manipulate their samples. The World Anti-Doping Agency, which governs Olympic athletes, has a policy that all athletes must be chaperoned from the time they are told they will be tested until they produce a urine sample and that the sample must be produced within 90 minutes after the athlete has been told about the test.
In college sports, however, athletes are sometimes given as much as a day’s notice of a drug test, leaving the process open for abuse — skipping a test, diluting a sample or tampering in other ways — according to coaches, athletes, collectors and trainers. Online message boards provide tips on how to pass a test and recommend performance-enhancing substances that can be taken without detection.
Typically, a college gives a roster of its athletes to Drug Free Sport and the company randomly selects the athletes who will be tested. Drug Free Sport says it conducts tests at every Division I college at least once a year. Football players are tested more frequently than other athletes because the sport has had more drug incidents, a spokeswoman for the N.C.A.A. said.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst had a contract with Drug Free Sport for the 2009-10 academic year for a testing program in addition to what the company did for the N.C.A.A. Students were notified in the morning for a test that evening — a warning of six to eight hours, said Jeff Smith, the university’s associate athletic director for sports medicine. The contract with Drug Free Sport, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, said that student-athletes “must be notified in person or via direct telephone or cellphone contact.”
In addition, the contract said, “The site coordinator or designees must sign each notification form, verifying the student-athlete’s notification of drug testing.”
Immediate, unannounced testing is difficult because “we just don’t have the personnel to do that,” Smith said.
UMass Amherst has since contracted with a different testing company for a lower cost and has the same notification policy, Smith said.
It is generally up to an individual college to decide how much notice to give athletes, said Andrea Wickerham, a vice president with Drug Free Sport. She added that the contract could also refer to a “tap on the shoulder” counting as notice minutes before a test.
“The best practice is clearly no notice,” Wickerham said. “It’s a huge variable. Generally as a practical matter, we have to give them some notice or the guy at the front gate won’t let us in the door.”
Governing bodies at the Olympic and professional levels generally identify athletes who test positive for banned substances — a step that is considered a deterrent. Uryasz and the N.C.A.A. have said they intend to keep positive results private, citing privacy laws.
N.C.A.A. athletes are subject to random drug testing. Students who test positive lose one year of eligibility for the first offense and are withheld from competition for a full season. A second positive test for a street drug like marijuana results in another lost year of eligibility and a year withheld from competition. An athlete is permanently ineligible with a second positive test for a performance-enhancing drug.
Athletes can appeal positive test results, and their names are generally not made public by the N.C.A.A. or individual universities.
“The threat of public announcement, public humiliation — you could argue that it’s a deterrent,” Uryasz said. “And I don’t disagree with that. But these are young people, they’re 18 to 22 years old, and they make mistakes. I think those mistakes really should be handled at the university level or the N.C.A.A. level if it’s an N.C.A.A. drug test.”
The Collection Process
When the scale of drug testing was smaller, nurses and physicians often handled the collection of urine samples. The United States Anti-Doping Agency, which follows the protocols of the World Anti-Doping Agency, uses its own collectors, who are employees of the organization.
Drug Free Sport relies on a network of 11 collection companies that work as subcontractors. There are more than 200 individual “certified collectors” who have had Drug Free Sport training, which consists of an online course, a background check and ongoing person-to-person mentoring, the company said.
By outsourcing collections, Drug Free Sport can better serve clients throughout the country and reduce costs, an executive for the company said.
The collectors representing Drug Free Sport show up on a campus and ask student-athletes for identification. An athlete is asked to go into a restroom and urinate into a cup as a representative of the same gender watches, similar to the Olympic protocol. The athlete watches as the sample is sealed and prepared for shipment to a laboratory. Tests for performance-enhancing drugs are done at a lab certified by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and tests for street drugs are sent to a federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration lab.
Collection is important, Uryasz said, because “the student can introduce anything to the collection that would be a deterrent or a masking agent.”
Ensuring that the sample is not diluted is also crucial.
According to contracts and e-mails between Drug Free Sport and some client universities, the company advertises a program in which college officials, trainers, coaches and others can conduct their own collection program.
“It’s not ideal,” Uryasz said, noting that many colleges were looking to make drug testing fit within their budgets. “We’re always working with them to see if they can move away from doing their own collection.”
In its marketing materials and contracts presented to colleges, Drug Free Sport promises that samples will be tested at a WADA-certified lab. Two such labs exist in the United States, one at U.C.L.A. and one at the University of Utah, which has been spun off into its own nonprofit separate from the university.
The most comprehensive menu of drugs that Drug Free Sport tests for, according to a review of contracts between the company and some of its university clients, is called the Comprehensive Anabolic Steroid Panel Plus or the N.C.A.A. Year-Round Testing Panel. At $150 per test, it includes testing for “every substance in the WADA-accredited laboratory of anabolic agents.” A less expensive option ($80) tests for about 20 substances.
However, anabolic agents make up only one of the nine categories on the WADA list. The most rigorous Drug Free Sport testing panel excludes drugs like peptide hormones, stimulants, narcotics and many masking agents.
“If you tell a client that you’re testing and in the same breath you’re linking that to WADA and the list, you should disclose that you’re not doing the whole list,” Catlin said.
“They want people to think they use the whole WADA list, but they don’t test for everything on the WADA menu. Most people don’t realize they’re not the same.”
Drug Free Sport said the drug-testing menus for individual colleges might be catered toward more commonly used banned substances among student-athletes, like marijuana. Costs for testing for a full menu of WADA substances are high, said Wickerham, the Drug Free Sport executive.
“Are we missing some kids because we’re not doing the full WADA list?” she said. “Absolutely. But if you’re going to do a drug test, it’s better to do some drug testing than none. Most of the school programs focus on drugs of abuse, like marijuana.”
The N.C.A.A. does not publicly disclose a complete list of its banned substances, but does release information on eight broad classes of banned drugs that may be tested for. Each test includes screening for at least one performance-enhancing drug, Wilfert said.
The menu is “constantly being updated,” Wickerham said, and it is “pretty darn close” to the WADA list.
“It’s not because they’re not trying to be transparent,” Wickerham said. “It’s because most athletes would look at the list and think it’s a never-ending list. But it’s changing practically daily.”
Travis Tygart, the president of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, who recently built the doping case against Lance Armstrong, said in a statement that the “pressure to win in today’s college sports environment creates enormous temptations on athletes to use dangerous performance-enhancing drugs, and what is critical for the integrity of competition and the rights of clean athletes is to have an effective and independent program in place that both deters and detects the use of dangerous drugs in violation of the rules of the game.”
“There also needs to be a level of transparency to the testing program to ensure accountability for who is being tested, what they are being tested for and how often testing is occurring,” the statement said.
Testing menus, Wickerham said, are only part of what Drug Free Sport does in its work on campuses. “Education is huge,” she said.
A Constant Challenge
Drug testers at all levels face the constant challenge of trying to keep up with new varieties of performance-enhancing drugs. While many college athletes do not have the finances to concoct designer drugs the way a professional might, the Internet has made shopping for obscure drugs easier than ever.
With budget constraints, colleges may have to decide between testing fewer athletes for a greater variety of drugs or testing more athletes for fewer drugs.
“I think the testing is better,” said Dr. Gary Green, who oversees Major League Baseball’s drug-testing program. “I think it’s a constant cat-and-mouse game. You always have to be evolving.”
At the college level, Green said, it is especially difficult to design a single program that spans dozens of sports and potential drugs abused. “It then becomes an intelligence test,” he said.
Uryasz, the founder of Drug Free Sport, said: “The cat-and-mouse problem is the world we live in. But the answer to that is research and to make sure that we’re using laboratories that are committed to research.”
Even for professional athletes who face more rigorous antidoping programs, Catlin said he was not sure that drug testing served as an effective deterrent. “My view is skeptical,” he said. “If a guy or girl wants to beat the test, there are perfectly well-known ways of doing that. I think the whole drug-testing industry deserves a bad review.”
Catlin went on: “That’s a major change in my attitude. When I started out in the 1980s, I had a lot to do with designing and building these programs. I thought we had all these features in them that made them bulletproof. But over the years, I’ve learned through experience that there are more ways to beat the test than I originally thought.”
At Drug Free Sport’s offices, the company is continuing to expand its client base. More colleges are turning to the company for help with drug testing, and its roster of clients has grown to include the PGA Tour, the L.P.G.A., the W.N.B.A. and large college conferences like the Big 12.
Doping scandals rarely rock college athletics the way they affect professional sports. But more universities are bolstering their drug-testing programs, Uryasz said.
“It’s still a big problem out there,” he said.