The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport announced Thursday former University of Manitoba Bisons football player Ranji Atwall has been suspended from the CIS for four years for testing positive for anabolic steroids at a CFL regional combine this winter.
Despite the lengthy suspension, Atwall -- who has already graduated from the U of M -- could, theoretically, sign with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers today and suit up for the team this Sunday in Regina, if the Bombers so desired.
That's not going to happen, but the mere existence of such a gaping loophole -- the CFL does not honour CIS drug suspensions -- sends the wrong message to university athletes and needs to be changed, Bisons football coach Brian Dobie said Thursday while discussing the Atwall suspension.
Dobie told reporters he would like to see the CFL honour whatever sanctions the CIS imposes on student athletes who test positive.
"That would be my hope. Would that prevent it? No. Would it help to prevent it? Absolutely. It would be a truly positive step, without a doubt," said Dobie.
Currently, the CFL allows suspended CIS athletes to play in the CFL, but treats their failed university test as a first strike, meaning they are subject to random testing as soon as they enter the CFL and their CIS failed test counts against them if they test positive again while in the CFL. A CFL player who tests positive twice gets an automatic three-game suspension.
While there is pressure on all student athletes to seize whatever competitive advantage they can, Dobie says the ones he worries about most are players exactly like Atwall, who leave the university program and turn to performance-enhancing drugs in a bid to break into the professional ranks.
"This could happen with any student athlete but the ones we fear that are most at risk are student athletes leaving the program with aspirations of moving forward," said Dobie. "Why else would you do it? To look good on the beach?"
The fact the CFL doesn't honour CIS drug suspensions was a little-known fact that became public earlier this year when the Calgary Stampeders drafted Concordia defensive lineman Quinn Smith seventh overall despite the fact just hours before the draft it was announced Smith had tested positive at another CFL combine this March for stanozolol, the same steroid that derailed sprinter Ben Johnson.
Smith was ultimately suspended for two years by the CIS, yet has appeared in three games for the Stampeders this season.
Three players tested positive at CFL combines last winter and Bombers slotback Julian Feoli-Gudino, who had a standout CIS career at Laval before turning pro, said the temptation to take performance-enhancing drugs can be overwhelming for a university player heading to a CFL combine, where university players are judged on their performance in things like the 40-yard sprint, vertical jump and bench press.
"You have to hit the numbers. The combine is not about playing football; it is literally just about chasing numbers," said Feoli-Gudino. "And if a player feels those substances might help them to reach those numbers, it's understandable someone might think about taking something like that.
"The business of football is growing and people want to make money at it."
Feoli-Gudino echoed Dobie's call for the CFL to begin considering honouring CIS drug suspensions. "I think there's some things that have to be thought about and the message you're giving players coming out for the combine.
"Because if you're telling them you can do whatever you want -- test positive and we'll still draft you and you'll still play -- then that's something we should think about."
Atwall, who the CCES says tested positive for the steroid oxandrolone during a CFL regional combine in Edmonton on March 17, 2014, never did get drafted or sign with a CFL team this year.
The CCES said Atwall admitted to the offence, waived his right to a hearing and accepted a four-year CIS ban.
A defensive-line starter for the Bisons in 2012 and 2013, Atwall also tested positive in 2011, but that test came back positive for cannabis and took place while he was playing for the Canadian Junior Football League's Vancouver Island Raiders.
It's just the second time a Bisons athlete has tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and the first time in more than a decade. In 2002, Charles Bazilewich tested positive for steroids and was suspended.
The fact Atwall had already graduated and was no longer a Bisons player when the positive test occurred is also a mitigating factor, but it still didn't sit well with U of M athletic director Coleen Dufresne.
"Our goal is to have 100 per cent of our student athletes competing fairly and drug free," Dufresne told reporters. "And so I'm disappointed and I have to say there's a little bit of anger there. Because I think we do a really good job on educating the athletes on competing fairly and being clean..."
Dobie said Thursday morning he had no evidence that led him to believe Atwall was using illegal performance enhancers while he was a member of the Bisons program the past two seasons, but he's left to wonder now.
"You always wonder that when these things happen -- of course you wonder that. And you certainly hope that's not the case," said Dobie.
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