In 1986, the National Collegiate Athletic Association started testing athletes for performance enhancing drugs at championship competitions. The move prompted serious pushback from those concerned about legality and privacy issues.
Fast-forward 25 years, and scores of colleges are testing any athlete, any time – not just for drugs that could give them an advantage on the field, but for any banned substance at all, from marijuana to methamphetamine.
A 2009 NCAA survey of institutions across all three divisions found that 92 to 96 percent of programs do random testing of all sports. Yet some colleges recently have drawn attention for either starting random testing for the first time -- previously testing only with “reasonable suspicion” that an athlete was using – or for upping the frequency with which they test or the penalties for positive results.
Since it began testing at championship events, the NCAA has expanded its program to include other banned substances, including street drugs, masking agents and stimulants, among other things. In 1990, it started doing random tests at least once a year at Division I and II institutions. The NCAA's testing covers about 13,500 samples a year.
Division III institutions, on the other hand, have shot down proposals to add year-round testing to what’s already done at championships, opting instead for an educational approach to reducing drug use.
But on the whole, colleges are increasing their testing – to include random samples as well as more substances – “because that’s how their program becomes better,” said Kathy J. Turpin, director of collegiate drug testing at the National Center For Drug Free Sport, which conducts the NCAA tests and also contracts with more than 200 institutions to run their in-house testing.
The policies vary widely, but penalties typically involve counseling and suspension from competitions or all team activity, and increase in severity with multiple failed tests.
The University of Oregon this month began random testing under a temporary program that will likely become permanent after a public hearing on campus next month, after a widely shared ESPN the Magazine article in April detailed the pot-smoking culture on the campus, asserting that between 40 and 60 percent of football players smoke. (A delay of the hearing until after the policy took effect, thus bypassing input from the University Senate, angered some on campus.)
The usage estimate – made by current and former players – put the Ducks well ahead of NCAA studies suggesting 26.7 percent of college football players (and 22.6 percent of athletes over all) smoke marijuana.
It wasn’t the first time Oregon made headlines for football players smoking pot – the former star cornerback Cliff Harris became a local legend in June 2011 when, after being pulled over during a 118-mph cruise down the interstate, he responded to police officers’ questions about the marijuana odor by saying, “We smoked it all.”
Such occurrences can prompt colleges to revisit their policies, Turpin said.
“We talk a lot about being proactive; you don’t want that bad incident to be what guides it. Unfortunately a lot of times when we see that bad incident … that tends to make other institutions be proactive,” she said. “But we have great institutions throughout the country, with great leaders, and they have the incentive for the right reason, and that’s to protect the health and safety of our student-athletes.”
An Oregon athletics spokesman, Craig Pintens, said the program was already considering random testing before publication of the article, which he described as "interesting."
Chip Kelly, Oregon’s head football coach, said after the article ran that he didn’t believe the 40-to-60 percent figure because if it were true, the team wouldn’t be 36-6 in the last three seasons. But he said he wanted random testing so he could figure out how many players do smoke.
But Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, suggested such policies invade athletes’ privacy and “overreach” when they mandate testing for more than just substances that give athletes a competitive advantage.
“I understand the random testing in terms of performance enhancing drugs, and I think I can understand that it does concern player safety,” Huma said. “No one likes to hear that players are doing street drugs…. But I would like to see schools adopt treatment programs or counseling rather than a penalty.”
Pintens said the privacy concerns shouldn’t be an issue.
“I think the State of Oregon has a unique perspective on many issues, and we celebrate Oregon’s uniqueness,” he said. “However, like most things, I think the perspective on random drug testing has changed over time, as evidenced by 95 percent of our peers having random testing. We want to make sure that above all we can preserve the health and safety of our athletes and put them in the best position to succeed.”
The NCAA’s own studies indicate that marijuana use, at least, is increasing among athletes. The most recent figures, from about a year ago, found that positive tests for the drug increased from 28 in 2008-09 to 71 in 2009-10. Still, that’s less than 3 percent of athletes.
While declining to provide specific numbers regarding failed tests, University of Michigan Athletics Director David Brandon said his program has observed the opposite trend since stepping up the frequency of its random testing in 2010. Michigan now conducts "hundreds" of tests a year, with irregular frequency and timing to keep students on their toes. The message to students? “Don’t think you can kind of play Russian roulette and engage in that behavior and hope that you won’t get tapped for a test.” That was often the thinking before, Brandon said.
“The program has been wildly successful in terms of the impact that it’s had and the significant reduction in the number of positives,” and in the way athletes think about drug use, Brandon said. “This really wasn’t born by seeing what other people were doing, it was really driven by a clear philosophy and value that we have here, that we don’t want our students to be engaged in illegal drug use of any form.”
But if a player tests positive for marijuana three weeks after smoking it some weekday, Huma posited, does that justify banning him or her from competition? A better approach would be educating athletes about the implications of drug use, he said.
After a first positive test result, Michigan suspends the player from all team activities for a week and the next competition. For the second, the athlete is suspended for two weeks and a third of the season’s competitions. The third positive test prompts permanent removal from the team.
Oregon’s drug testing program, which will cost an estimated $35,000 annually, will mandate counseling and substance abuse counseling, including a clinical psychologist assessment, after a first positive test. The second will prompt a formal “behavior modification contract” defining the coach's and athletics department’s expectations and the consequences of noncompliance. A third positive test makes an athlete ineligible for competition for the equivalent of half an entire season. The athlete will be cut from the team and lose all athletic scholarships beginning with the next term after a fourth positive test.
All of the programs contacted for this article include an education and counseling component when punishing students for positive test results, in addition to doing things like bringing in former athletes to speak about their own struggles with drug abuse. The University of Georgia, which says it was the first institution to do in-house testing, back in the 1980s, places a particularly strong emphasis on education and counseling.
That includes meetings and presentations with all 600 athletes on campus, smaller team events where athletes might feel more comfortable asking questions, annual meetings with a substance abuse committee, and customized topics or advisers to each team -- for instance, more focus on performance enhancing drugs in football and track and field, and emphasis on smoking tobacco for baseball players.
In addition, Georgia suspends athletes for 10 percent of the sports season for a first failed test, 30 percent for the second, and for the third, removes the athlete from the sport and terminates all athletic aid. This is in conjunction with regular drug testing, and heightened substance abuse treatment and counseling. Multiple athletes have been suspended over the past couple of seasons.
“We probably are one of the more stringent schools, nationally,” said Ron Courson, director of sports medicine at Georgia. “It’s something that we feel strongly about. We do not feel that there’s a place for drugs in sports, whether it’s performance enhancing or recreational…. We recognize that all kids make mistakes – our student athletes do and my kids do. But when my kids make a mistake, I have some corrective guidelines for them.”
But Huma argues it’s unfair for athletes to be singled out.
“You don’t see the schools randomly testing regular students as a condition of their enrollment in school or their privileges in school,” he said.
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