Minutes after the members of the Michigan men’s distance medley relay team came off the track with a second-place finish in the NCAA indoor championships last March, they were each asked to urinate into a cup with someone else watching.
This may seem intrusive, but it is standard operating procedure at any NCAA championship event. It also happens hundreds of times a year at every Division I campus.
In fact, it’s just a small part of the NCAA’s $4 million program to test athletes for drug use each year. The policy has earned the highest praise from students and administrators. And, at a time when Congress has scrutinized the actions of Major League Baseball and its players, politicians have looked to the NCAA as the example of an effective program.
But very few people outside the NCAA know the organization actually performs drug testing, and if they do, it’s unlikely they know how it works. Despite the high esteem in which the NCAA policy is held, there are numerous problems – some that can be fixed and some that can’t – that it must deal with in the future.
How it works
The NCAA sponsors two types of drug testing throughout the year. The first, which the members of the track team experienced, occurs at championship events for every sport. The second, which has gradually expanded since its inception, is the year-round drug-testing program. It started in 1990 with just football, before track and field was included in 1992. Since August 2004, all sports have been subject to the NCAA’s campus-based program.
The championship drug-testing policy varies by sport. In team events, the NCAA can test a group of random players at any point during the tournament. In individual sports, the NCAA tests a predetermined number of athletes in each event, usually the winner and another random athlete.
The year-round testing is much more structured. The National Center for Drug Free Sport, the company that runs the program for the NCAA, visits every Division I-A school once during the year to test 18 football players and eight athletes from another sport. For other divisions, those numbers vary.
Drug Free Sport has a team of 50 crew chiefs, some employees but mostly contractors, who it sends to run the program at each campus. The crew chief notifies the athletic department no sooner than 48 hours before he and his team of two to three other workers will arrive. He also tells the school which sport, besides football, Drug Free Sport has decided to test.
“Sort of planning out the whole year, we also want to make sure we have a good cross-section of all sports and test athletes who show they have more likelihood of using banned substances,” said Andrea Wickerham, a former assistant field hockey coach at Michigan who now runs the NCAA testing program for Drug Free Sport.
Drug Free Sport then randomly chooses the athletes, who are told by the school that they are expected to arrive at the drug-testing site by around 6:30 a.m. that day.
The substances the NCAA looks for also differ depending on which type of testing is going on. At championship events, the NCAA includes all of its banned substances in the testing. This includes stimulants (cocaine, ephedrine, methamphetamines, etc.), anabolic steroids, diuretics (which increase the flow of urine from the body), street drugs and peptide hormones and analogues, like human growth hormone. During the year-round process, the NCAA does not test for any street drugs or stimulants, with the exception of ephedrine.
But in terms of the actual testing, the processes are extremely similar. A tester escorts the athlete to the bathroom to ensure there is no manipulation of the urine sample. Once the cup is filled to the specified volume, a crew member checks to make sure the urine has the right pH balance and is not diluted to the point that no meaningful testing results will be recorded at the laboratory. If the sample does not pass the preliminary test, the athlete is required to stay until he deposits one that can.
If a sample is acceptable, it is readied for packaging. It is split between two vials, labeled “A” and “B.” The tester attaches a bar code to each, so that nothing on the package will identify either the athlete or his school, then prepares the vials for shipment. Then, the athlete signs a computerized record that states the tester acted in accordance with NCAA protocol.
The samples are shipped to the UCLA Olympic Laboratory, the only site in the entire United States accredited to do steroid testing by the World Anti-Doping Association. First, the “A” sample is run through the testing process. If the results are negative, the tests end. If positive, the remainder of the “A” sample goes into a more complex machine for additional testing.
The results are sent back to Wickerham, who decodes them by bar code and reports to the school. If after the second test an athlete still tests positive, Wickerham asks him to authorize the unsealing of the “B” sample. With his permission, the sample is opened, and the tests are performed again by someone uninvolved in the original testing. This extended process ensures the quality of the testing.
“The thought of a false positive is ludicrous,” said Don Catlin, who is the director of the laboratory, which also conducts steroid testing for the NFL. “People always say, ‘How can you do that,’ well we can, we’ve been doing it for 25 years. The minute we have a false positive, we’re out of business.
“It’s people in the general laboratory work fields, clinical chemists, who promote these kind of silly questions, they simply don’t understand what we do. This is not like a doctor sending a blood or urine to the lab, where they do have mistakes. Nothing like that happens at all, apples and oranges. The amount of work that goes into a positive sample in this lab is huge.”
It’s easy to understand why the thought of a false positive is so devastating to the testers. Any player who eventually does show a positive result is subject to stiff penalties from the NCAA. For a first-time offender, the punishment is removal from competition for one year, contingent upon negative tests for the athlete throughout that period and at least one in the month leading up to his scheduled return. A second positive results in the loss of all remaining eligibility, a ban from NCAA competition. The exception is if the second positive is for a street drug, in which case a minimum one year penalty will be instituted.
An appeals process is also offered. If a player can prove to the appeals committee that the collection method was flawed or that he was not at all responsible for having the banned substance in his system, the entire penalty can be overturned. If the athlete proves he was not “significantly responsible,” the penalty may be cut in half.
The strictness has led athletes and administrators to praise the program’s effectiveness.
“On a scale of one to 10, I’d probably rank it a nine,” said Don Kaverman, who is the athletic director at Southeast Missouri State and head of the NCAA’s drug-testing subcommittee. “It’s a very thorough, comprehensive program. It’s been well tested. It’s executed by extremely competent professionals. In sports, I think we have the best drug testing program in existence, period.”
“I think what (the NCAA) does is enough. I think the deterrent is enough. I don’t think they need to do more testing, there’s not any known rampant usage. I think the NCAA does a fine job as far as I’m concerned,” said junior Rondell Ruff, a member of the distance medley relay team that went on to win the title due to the disqualification of Arkansas.
Even with all the laurels, the NCAA program is far from perfect.
One problem is that schools’s own programs do not necessarily offer a sufficient supplement to the NCAA’s policy.
Because of the low number of athletes who are actually tested each year (Only 10,558 samples are collected from 375,851 athletes over all three divisions.), many schools have implemented their own drug-testing programs. But the high cost means many test only for street drugs. Wickerham approximates lab cost alone for a steroid test would be around $150 compared to $25 for just street drugs. This is more troubling to smaller schools, where they may have more student-athletes than a Division I school, but a much smaller budget.
“The most important thing with drug testing is that their college or university test as often as possible, maybe as often as once or twice a month,” Wickerman said, “And that they do it in enough quantity at each time, you know maybe 10-15 athletes, so that the student athlete thinks and believes that they either might get selected or might get selected twice in order to deter their use. You know, some schools might only get to test twice semester. Well, in our opinion, that’s not the best way of drug testing because it really isn’t frequent enough to deter a student athletes use of a banned substance.”
In addition, many schools impose penalties much more lenient than the NCAA. At Southeast Missouri State, which only tests for street drugs, a first infraction results in a suspension of no more than 90 days while the second calls for a loss of scholarship. Kaverman says he thinks his policy is stricter than most because other schools have no punishment – just counseling on a first offense – and wait until three or four more infractions are committed before a student is seriously penalized.
Michigan’s own policy, which The Michigan Daily obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, is in accordance with the trend of leniency. It subjects athletes to random testing, “reasonable suspicion” testing and testing if a doctor feels it necessary while diagnosing a medical problem. A coach may also ask the Athletic Department to subject his team to “PHASE II” testing, which would test the full team twice a year. Although the policy, specifically mentions the test are conducted for abuse of “amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana, barbiturates, opiates, etc.,” it mentions that all other substances banned by the NCAA may also be added to the test.
A student athlete’s test will be considered positive based on the concentrations set by the NCAA unless the physician conducting it feels there is a serious health risk. The first positive can result in the athlete being referred to counseling, and if he does not attend the counseling, the athletic director or coach could suspend the athlete. A second positive imposes a suspension of at least 10 percent of the team’s season – again with a stricter penalty up to the head coach or athletic director. A third positive sends the student to mandatory substance-abuse education and suspends him from competition for a year. An athlete may appeal the penalty upon the completion of the education program and proof of drug-free status.
“It really varies from institution to institution on what the philosophy is and how this issue should be treated,” Kaverman said.
But the NCAA’s program as a whole faces its own challenges. For starters, the program’s accuracy in diagnosing positives allows for the possibility that many cheating athletes remain undetected.
“There are lots and lots and lots of false negatives, that’s the problem,” Dr. Catlin said. “The only way you can operate without false positives is to have false negatives. There are a lot of those, yes. We don’t know how many. If there’s element of doubt, you have to call it negative.”
The NCAA’s own numbers seem to back this conclusion. In the NCAA’s recent Study of Substance Use Habits of College Student-Athletes, a survey conducted once every four years, 1.2 percent of athletes admitted to having taken anabolic steroids. But, looking over the NCAA’s drug-test results for the 2003-04 school year (which was the last year before year-round drug testing was instituted for every sport), only .6 percent of tests registered as positive, which includes those for all banned substances, not just steroids.
Another issue arising from the testing is discovering how to test for certain drugs. An example is human growth hormone, which is on the NCAA’s banned list but remains undetectable. It’s a question that continues to plague Catlin’s lab. How can he test for something if he doesn’t know of its existence?
“The problem is that there are hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of potential steroids out there, and we don’t know which ones the clandestine chemist are making or using,” Catlin said. “So we need somebody to tell us, which doesn’t happening very often, or we need the government to go bust somebody like they did in BALCO. Or we need somebody to say such and such a urine sample has a clandestine steroid that helps a little bit. Or we have ways of searching for any steroids, but I’m not going to discuss those – those are our own work product and they’re secret. So there’s a game going on out there.”
A deeper issue
But perhaps the greatest threat to the NCAA is a societal problem – the fact that, no matter what, athletes will always be tempted to cheat.
“There’s always going to be felons in this sport,” track and field junior Andrew Ellerton said. “Some people are going to try to get around it.”
“It’s just a fact of life,” Kaverman said. “There are going to be students who make poor decisions, whether they’re athletes or nonathletes whether it relates to drugs or something else – I think the program’s been effective. I think institutions have been effective in communicating the message to their student athletes. But, we’re not naA_ve enough to think that it’s going to totally eradicate the use of drugs by student athletes.”
Catlin attributes part of the desire to the benefits involved in developing new drugs.
“There’s money involved in this business – a lot of money,” he said. “Wherever the money flows, you can imagine there are people who are trying to figure out a scheme to get some of it. And a good way to get money in athletics these days is to come up with somebody we don’t know about because they can just use it and get away with it. So it’s hard to imagine that the bad guys are just going to roll over and play dead.”
Still, he said he remains optimistic for the future.
“There’ll always be people out there who are scheming to figure out a way to beat the system. We know this, we are encountering them every so often. Hopefully, we’ll catch enough so that one day they decide to give up and play fair. Now it isn’t there yet, but there’s signs that things are moving that way.”