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When schools ask Drug Free Sport for advice on their drug policies, Turpin said she recommends an immediate suspension after the first positive drug test. Otherwise, she said, “student athletes will roll the dice.”

But drug use is a bigger deal at some schools than others.

At Notre Dame and Alabama, the teams that will soon compete for the national championship, players don’t automatically miss games for testing positive for steroids. At Alabama, coaches have wide discretion. Notre Dame’s student-athlete handbook says a player who fails a test can return to the field once the steroids are out of his system.

“If you’re a strength-and-conditioning coach, if you see your kids making gains that seem a little out of line, are you going to say, ‘I’m going to investigate further? I want to catch someone?’” said Anthony Roberts, an author of a book on steroids who says he has helped college football players design steroid regimens to beat drug tests.

There are schools with tough policies. The University of North Carolina kicks players off the team after a single positive test for steroids. Auburn’s student-athlete handbook calls for a half-season suspension for any athlete caught using performance-enhancing drugs.

Wilfert said it’s not up to the NCAA to determine whether that’s fair.

“Obviously if it was our testing program, we believe that everybody should be under the same protocol and the same sanction,” she said.

Fans typically have no idea that such discrepancies exist and players are left to suspect who might be cheating.

“You see a lot of guys and you know they’re possibly on something because they just don’t gain weight but get stronger real fast,” said Orrin Thompson, a former defensive lineman at Duke. “You know they could be doing something but you really don’t know for sure.”

Thompson gained 85 pounds between 2001 and 2004, according to Duke rosters and Thompson himself. He said he did not use steroids and was subjected to several tests while at Duke, a school where a single positive steroid test results in a yearlong suspension.

Meanwhile at UCLA, home of the laboratory that for years set the standard for cutting-edge steroid testing, athletes can fail three drug tests before being suspended. At Bowling Green, testing is voluntary.

At the University of Maryland, students must get counseling after testing positive, but school officials are prohibited from disciplining first-time steroid users. Athletic department spokesman Matt Taylor denied that was the case and sent the AP a copy of the policy. But the policy Taylor sent included this provision: “The athletic department/coaching staff may not discipline a student-athlete for a first drug offense.”

By comparison, in Kentucky and Maryland, racehorses face tougher testing and sanctions than football players at Louisville or the University of Maryland.

“If you’re trying to keep a level playing field, that seems nonsensical,” said Rannazzisi at the DEA. He said he was surprised to learn that what gets a free pass at one school gets players immediately suspended at another. “What message does that send? It’s OK to cheat once or twice?”

Only about half the student athletes in a 2009 NCAA survey said they believed school testing deterred drug use.

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