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NFL's fear factor

It is one of the few admitted fears of NFL players. Fear of randomness. Fear of an ever-growing list of banned substances. Fear of a 25-percent pay cut.

If Major League Baseball can take anything from the NFL's steroid policy, these are the things on which it might want to focus.

Ask NFL players what they fear most about steroids, and they'll probably give you a multitude of answers. There's the public humiliation and loss of trust. If they are old enough, they might mention Lyle Alzado's brain tumor. But if Major League Baseball really wants to know what scares NFL players about steroids, it might consider cancer of the checkbook first.

"The four games, when we only play 16 – that's four checks, a whole bunch of money, man," Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Dewayne Washington said. "Guys can't take that. That's too much of a hit to your pocket. You might think about (taking steroids), but then you see the four games, and that's just too much."

Indeed, the NFL's steroid testing policy looks more credible when held up against the mess baseball is going through. And whether or not you believe in the pristine, clean image that the league proudly champions, there's little denying the NFL as the current testing pace-setter.

After going through its own ugliness in the early 1990s, when Alzado's death raised steroid awareness to new heights in the sport, the NFL has painstakingly tried to keep itself ahead of the curve. It's certainly not a perfect system – players are suspended almost every year under the steroid policy, including some who weren't even taking steroids. But it is a consistent system that at least fosters a fear of performance-enhancing drugs, largely because its penalties and methods are among the strictest in professional sports.

"Mathematically speaking, it's close to impossible for a player to go through a whole season without being tested," Jaguars athletic trainer Michael Ryan said. "Especially since the testing includes the regular season, training camp, postseason and the offseason programs."

The process itself is hardly sexy. There are no armed guards. No helicopters from the sky, or raids that break down doors and whisk people away. There's never a barricaded standoff. Typically, the system comes down to a simple sticker and a urine test.

Each week, a computer randomly selects seven players to be tested for each team in the NFL. The seven players will be split into two groups, each to be tested on different days. A league-paid employee then arrives on site and notifies players they have been selected, often by leaving a sticker on their locker. Once the players have been told face-to-face they are being tested, they have four hours to produce a urine sample.

And that sample will be subject to a wide net – only the International Olympic Committee has a larger list of banned substances than the NFL. Through this season, the league tests for 60 substances that fall into three categories: 35 anabolic agents (steroids), 20 masking agents (diuretics) and five stimulants (such as Ephedrine, Methylephedrine, etc.). It's a list so deep that players often complain they can't buy cold medicine without fearing some type of banned derivative will be detected.

"That part can be a problem," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. "The over-the-counter things and some of the things that lead to suspensions, you do have to be ultra conservative in terms of really knowing what is in whatever you are taking. I guess the league has gone to an extreme to ensure something doesn't take place."

"Sometimes that net might be a little too big. … We had a couple of guys in Carolina who ended up having four-game suspensions, and they get lumped in the steroid category – because it's part of the steroid policy – when in fact their positive tests had nothing to do with steroids," said Del Rio, who was the Panthers' defensive coordinator before joining the Jaguars. "It had to do with substances that just fall under that umbrella."

But that's part of the league's mission with the list – to crack down on any substance, steroids or not, that provide some kind of performance-enhancing edge while risking health. The crackdown has been so fluid that the league adds to the list of banned substances on an annual basis.

"It had to have been a struggle (confronting the league's steroid use) 20 years ago," Ryan said. "But what you see now is a result of the NFL grabbing the bull by the horns. … We're living as a league in the result of that aggressive approach."

Not that the NFL has eliminated steroids completely. Over the summer, four Oakland Raiders players – defensive linemen Chris Cooper and Dana Stubblefield, offensive lineman Barrett Robbins and linebacker Bill Romanowski – were implicated in the BALCO steroid scandal that has engulfed pro baseball. Cooper, Stubblefield and Robbins were all fined three game checks, while Romanowski's case is still pending because of his retirement from football after last season.

Even more recently, Miami Dolphins wide receiver David Boston was suspended four games and lost $1.34 million in salary for testing positive for anabolic steroids. Boston, who denies using steroids, will now be subjected to an advanced stage of the NFL's program in which he'll undergo dozens of random tests annually for the remainder of his career.

"Those guys, I don't know what they are thinking," said Washington, who has been tested this season. "If you're taking steroids, you're going to get caught eventually, because the testing is so random. You just don't know when you're going to come into work and you have that little sticker on your chair."