The University of Waterloo scandal has gone from the biggest performance-enhancing drugs investigation in Canadian university history to a possible precedent-setting case for all of North America. The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which handles drug testing of Canadian Interuniversity Sport and Canadian Olympic athletes, held a press conference today announcing the names of several Waterloo players who failed drug tests earlier this year (which eventually led to the year-long suspension of the program). Most prominent among them? Running back Matt Socholotiuk, who led Waterloo in rushing last year and was 13th in the country with 633 yards on 105 carries, who CCES says tested positive for human growth hormone (HGH). Socholotiuk has been suspended for the next three years, making him the first North American athlete to test positive for HGH and also the first North American athlete to be suspended for doing so; earlier this year, British rugby player Terry Newton became the first athlete to test positive for HGH and received a two-year ban from the sport.
The Socholotiuk case could have huge implications for sports in North America. As the New York Daily News piece on Newton points out, Major League Baseball has banned HGH but doesn't currently test for it. They announced earlier this summer that they're bringing in tests for HGH in the minors, where players aren't covered by a union, but the World Anti-Doping Agency says their tests are still nowhere close to good enough. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says he wants to bring in HGH testing, but that's again going to involve a battle with the players' union as part of the next CBA negotiations (which are contentious enough as it is). Tampa Bay fullback Earnest Graham estimated last year that 30 per cent of NFL players may be using HGH, and if the numbers are anywhere close to that, you can bet the players' association isn't going to let the league bring in blood testing without a fight. However, both the MLBPA and NFLPA's arguments so far have largely hinged on dismissing the reliability and usefulness of the existing blood test for HGH; Socholotiuk's case knocks another chink into their armour.
Paul Melia, CCES' president and chief executive officer, said in the organization's televised news conference today that CCES' adherence to the World Anti-Doping Code has led to them testing for HGH before North American professional leagues. He's happy to see leagues looking at the issue, but he thinks they still have a ways to go.
"The professional leagues in North America are coming to this late," Melia said. "Each of them, in their own way, are falling short of the World Anti-Doping Code, but it's a step in the right direction. ... I'd like to see them all adopt the World Anti-Doping Code."
There are a lot of questions still surrounding HGH, though. One particular one is what it actually does, which Yahoo!'s Jeff Passan took a look at in 2006. Most of HGH's benefits have been linked to quicker recovery from injuries, and Passan makes the valid point that it's very difficult to choose where to draw the line on that front; should painkillers or cortisone shots be considered performance-enhancing as well? Shutdown Corner's Matthew J. Darnell made the devil's advocate point earlier this year that it might actually be beneficial to give football players access to HGH because of the amounts of severe injuries they have to deal with. For the moment, though, HGH remains banned in most professional sports but not usually tested for. The Socholotiuk case may change that.
Another element that makes this interesting is Socholotiuk's prominence on the team. Most of the players whose names had come out before this were relatively obscure even to those who follow CIS football closely. Receiver Nathan Zettler, whose arrest triggered the whole saga, wasn't even listed as recording any statistics last year. The two players from other schools who were announced as failing drug tests, Acadia LB Taylor Shadgett and Windsor LB Christopher Deneau, were also low-profile players on low-profile teams. Socholotiuk (pictured below in action against McMaster last season; image from waterloowarriorfootball.com) doesn't meet that standard; he wasn't the best running back in CIS football last year, but he was very good for a rookie, and with continued improvement, might have been able to crack the CFL someday. Neate Sager of Yahoo!'s Buzzing the Net noted over at The CIS Blog earlier this summer that it was surprising that Socholotiuk wasn't listed among the exodus of transfers from Waterloo; it looks like we now know the reason why.
Other Waterloo names released today included centre Spencer Zimmerman-Cryer, receiver Aubrey Jesseau and linebacker Brandon Krukowski. Zimmerman-Cryer admitted to steroid use, and CCES has recommended a one-year suspension for him. Jesseau was caught testing positive for Stanazolol, and has received a two-year suspension. Krukowski, who remains under police investigation along with Zettler, received a four-year suspension.
Some would argue that it's unfair to university student-athletes to tar them for life with the stigma of performance-enhancing drug use, but Melia said it's organizational policy to release names.
"We must publicly disclose the name and the substance involved," he said.
Melia said releasing the names of those involved will show other student-athletes the repercussions of using performance-enhancing drugs.
"I think it's a powerful deterrent," he said. "You will be caught if you are found to be doping."
The high amounts of publicity given to the Waterloo saga may help to raise awareness of the perils of performance-enhancing drug usage, but it's perhaps damaging the image of Canadian university football. The CIS game has improved by leaps and bounds over the last decade, but that and the superb on-field action so far this season have largely been overshadowed by all the attention given to this drug scandal. That's sad to see.
At the same time, though, the attention given to this scandal may help provide a level playing field for athletes in both the CIS and CFL ranks down the road. The CFL's new CBA, signed earlier this year, will result in the testing of players for performance-enhancing drugs beginning in the 2011 season, and that testing will be carried out by CCES. The CFL will also pay for the testing of the top 80 CIS prospects each year, which is significant; only 89 CIS football players were tested at all last year. CIS chief executive officer Marg McGregor told me in 2008 that the 250-300 CIS athletes across all sports being tested each year was an adequate deterrent, but that was long before this current scandal.
One of the key factors in CIS' rather scattershot drug testing so far has been the cost of tests, which can be up to $800 per player. With the CFL stepping in to fund tests for top CIS prospects, it looks like enforcement of the CIS drug policies is likely to take a giant leap forward. The CFL bringing in a drug policy of its own also helps. Football is probably the CIS sport most likely to lead to a professional career, which puts a significant financial benefit on the table; the weak enforcement at the CIS level and complete lack of drug testing at the CFL level until now also meant that the odds of getting caught were low. Now, with an enhanced focus on testing the top CIS players and testing being brought in at the CFL level as well, it will be much more difficult to get away with using performance-enhancing drugs in Canadian football. It's just a shame it took a scandal like this to get to this point.