Sometimes football players gain weight for the saddest reason imaginable.
1. The AP's article on steroid use and abuse in college football is well-meaning, if you think steroids are capital-letter BAD with a "B." It relies primarily on weight gain as one indicator of potential implied steroid use.
2. This happens to be a possible correlation, though not without some confounders. One possible confounder is diet. The old formula for Michigan's linemen in the days of strength and conditioning coach Mike Gittleson was for budding, undersized linemen to eat an entire pizza before bedtime, and then soak up the delicious calories. The report mentions that weight gain data does not define quality of weight gain, and boy is that an important note when you have eating like college student-athletes among the variables.
3. I'm sure steroids are a presence in college football. The testing protocols are decentralized, and in many cases not even enforced. There is money on the line, and a marginal NFL talent can, for a year or two at max, manage to inflate his draft stock significantly with judicious steroid use. It's not a long-term plan, but then again, neither is the NFL for most athletes.
4. I'm also sure of what an SEC strength and conditioning coach told me is another confounder, and I swear this will be the saddest thing you hear all day: a lot of incoming freshmen, especially those hailing from rural high schools and homes below the poverty line, gain a huge amount of weight because their freshman year of college marks the first time they've ever gotten three adequate meals a day. That weight gain isn't just late-night pizza: it's a body used to doing work on half the fuel a well-fed body gets.
5. This is not just the anecdotal evidence supplied by one person. A Georgia high school team that made the 2011 state championships had problems with malnutrition. The USDA's own report on food insecurity in the United States is terrifying enough, but go ahead and look at it compared to a map of starting roster talent shown by state. With the exception of Louisiana and Florida, the most food-insecure states also correspond to those producing the majority of college football talent in the United States.
6. There are a thousand little details there aren't space for here, and I don't want to discount an attempt to show steroid use as a real issue in college football. It certainly is, but in relying on weight gain as an indicator of possible steroid use, the AP may be missing another, even more troubling issue: the number of people living in the poorest parts of America who don't get enough to eat on a daily basis. A lot of them play football. How they manage to do that under the circumstances is another mystery ripe for investigation.
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