Jan 29, 2015
NCAA’s Word on the Street

By Laura Ulrich

Colleges and universities are doing a fine job of monitoring their athletes for recreational drug use, and the NCAA doesn’t need to get involved in the effort. That was the decision made by an NCAA committee in June, when it shot down a proposal that would have had the association begin testing athletes for street drugs, including marijuana and cocaine.

Under the proposal, athletes would have faced strict penalties for testing positive. First-time offenders would have lost 50 percent of their season, while testing positive a second time would have resulted in a one-year suspension and a third positive test would have made the athlete permanently ineligible.

Since 1990, the NCAA has conducted testing for performance-enhancing substances such as steroids. Between 10,000 to 11,000 athletes are screened each year, some at championships and some throughout the year, and this testing will continue. But the committee believes testing for recreational drugs is better left to individual institutions. Cost may have played a role in the committee’s decision as well–the annual price tag for testing NCAA athletes for street drugs was estimated at $825,000.

“There are a high percentage of schools and conferences that already have [recreational drug testing programs] in place, along with an education program related to social drugs,” Carolyn Femovich, Chairwoman of the Championship and Competition Cabinet told ESPN.com. “The cabinet felt it was best left at the institutional level at this time.”

Meanwhile, a growing number of high schools are implementing testing for recreational drugs, often targeting students who participate in extra-curricular activities, including athletes. New York’s Newsday estimates that 1,000 schools across the nation currently have street drug testing programs in place.

Schools implement their programs in very different ways–some test based on suspicion, others test randomly, and still others test only students whose parents have agreed to it. Testing protocols differ just as much, with some schools giving test kits to parents to administer and others sending samples to labs.

The number of schools conducting testing is expected to grow, because federal funding for illicit drug testing at the high school level is soaring, growing 400 percent between 2003 and 2006. With cost removed as a barrier, many more schools are expected to jump on the drug testing bandwagon, but opponents are concerned that they’re doing so without asking some basic questions: Is testing a good idea, and does it work? Research addressing those questions is largely nonexistent.

Proponents of school-based drug testing argue that students who know they might be tested have a ready reason to say no to their peers when drugs are offered, helping them refuse without losing face. Given the high percentage of high school students who use drugs–by graduation, half have tried drugs and a quarter are using regularly–testing is warranted, according to the Institute for Behavior and Health. The White House agrees.

However, the opponents’ camp boasts some pretty big health care names, including the Director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. These groups say test results are not reliable, and that students who do test positive often don’t get the help they need. They also suggest that students likely to use drugs will steer clear of playing sports–exactly the kind of interaction that might put them back on track.

There is also the question of whether testing actually reduces use drug use. In 2003, a University of Michigan study of 76,000 students found no difference in use between schools that test and those that don’t. Those on both sides of the drug testing argument agree that more research is needed, but it seems likely that a growing number of schools will take advantage of available funding and begin testing before the research has time to catch up.

In other drug testing news, more states continue to implement testing for performance-enhancing drugs at the high school level. Texas approved a $3 million program in June and is set to begin random testing of male and female athletes in all sports this fall.

Targeting all sports was important to the Texas legislature, and it seems they may have been ahead of the curve in their thinking. In Florida, a one-year pilot program to test athletes only in baseball, football, and weightlifting has encountered criticism and rumblings of lawsuits under gender discrimination charges. While males may be the stereotypical steroid users, there is evidence that female athletes are not immune.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 2.8 percent of high school girls have tried steroids, compared with 5.0 percent of boys. Fearing legal challenges, Florida High School Athletic Association officials are looking for ways to bring greater gender equity to the testing program.

The United States Olympic Committee also has its eye on drug testing this summer, with the goal of increasing monitoring in the highest-risk sports. In July, the USOC signed a new agreement with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and announced plans to re-focus testing on the most problematic sports, which will be identified and reviewed each year. Testing frequency in sports considered low-risk may actually fall under the new plan. USAD General Counsel Travis Tygart told USA Today that the new approach will entail “intelligent testing,” using more data to better target testing. Athletes in high-risk sports will see more tests given with no advance notice, and more blood tests to identify users of human growth hormone, an increasing problem. Additional emphasis will also be placed on catching coaches who help athletes cheat.

Laura Ulrich is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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