The Real March Madness: The NCAA’s Drug Policy

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

lonely bball

Two years ago, I approached the athletic director of a large private university with the idea of instituting a drug treatment program on campus. He had only one comment: “Our institution doesn’t have a drug problem.” It was interesting timing, since the school’s quarterback had just been suspended following a DWI arrest and a failed drug test.

As a former Division 1 athlete myself, I can assure you that the quarterback wasn’t the only one using drugs, and the problem of substance abuse in college sports isn’t isolated to any single school. It occurs on campuses throughout the country, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that the NCAA—the organization created for the very purpose of “safeguarding the well-being of student-athletes and equipping them with the skills to succeed on the playing field, in the classroom and throughout life”—lacks a meaningful drug policy.

As Sharon Terlep of the Wall Street Journal reported, drug testing in college sports is currently a “school-by-school patchwork of policies and penalties: A first-time steroid infraction would bench a Florida player for half the season, but costs a Texas A&M player only a single game. Private schools such as Vanderbilt aren’t required to share their drug-testing policies with anyone, not even the NCAA.” In other words, schools themselves make their own policies, decide on the consequences of noncompliance, and don’t have to tell anyone about any infractions. But here’s the problem with putting schools in charge of all this: Taking a key player—or several players—out of a pivotal conference game for a failed drug test can literally cost a school millions of dollars. It’s exactly like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

To be fair, the NCAA does test students for drugs and has an official policy that any positive finding involving any drug results in a six-month suspension. That sounds good on paper—until you realize that testing actually happens only about once a year, and only among a small fraction of athletes. (According to the Wall Street Journal, only 32 of about 650 athletes at the University of Georgia were tested the entire year.) And let’s not forget that the NCAA shares in the colleges’ athletic cash flow, which means that organization, like individual schools, has a huge conflict of interest.

The good news is that this problem is now on the NCAA’s radar screen, thanks to Brian Hainline, M.D., the organization’s first chief medical officer. Dr. Hainline has been vocal about the need to do a better job of ensuring that student athletes stay off drugs. To achieve this, he’s called for the big five conferences—rather than individual schools—to each set a uniform conference-wide policy and to administer regular testing.

While I commend Hainline for putting the issue of drug policy on the table, I question the wisdom of his proposed solution. The conferences, like the NCAA and individual schools, also have a financial stake in keeping players in the game.

Much better would be if he called for the creation of a completely independent party—separate from the NCAA and from the conferences—that is entirely responsible for developing a meaningful drug policy and enforcing it. This body would have no financial stake in college sports, and would be paid for by the schools. You only have to look as far as March Madness to see that college athletics bring in enough money for such an entity to get a small slice of the pie.

What would such a policy look like? Testing would happen more frequently and would be completely overseen by this independent organization. A first infraction, in which a player tests positive for any non-prescribed drug, would result in the player being directed to a qualified outpatient substance abuse treatment program, either on campus (ideally) or in close proximity. Players would not be suspended for first infractions to encourage reporting and avoid creating a culture of secrecy. Instead, active recovery would be tied to active competition. In other words, as long as the athlete is undergoing treatment, he or she would be permitted to play. A second infraction signals a more serious problem. The very definition of drug addiction is that an individual continues to seek out and use a drug despite negative consequences. So if a player has so strong a need to use a drug that he or she does so despite the consequence of a failed drug test—and all that entails—then a serious addiction is likely. At that point, the policy should require residential treatment, ideally subsidized by the school if necessary. The NCAA, the conferences, and universities should partner with organizations such as Phoenix House to ensure that they are able to help any students who may have an addiction problem.

This kind of a policy would send a very clear message to student athletes: We care about you whether you’re on or off the field.

While such a policy is the end goal, schools shouldn’t sit around waiting for it to happen. In the meantime, they should institute their own policies that emphasize regular testing and the importance of treatment.

There’s a real fear that prevents many schools from taking this commonsense step, and it goes beyond concern about the money they may lose if one star player is taken off the field. It’s the fear of getting a reputation for being “that school”—the one with a drug problem. After all, if you don’t test regularly or you sweep a failed drug test under the rug, no one is the wiser. The school can claim, as that athletic director did, that the school doesn’t have an issue with substance abuse. But one only has to look at the way use of performance-enhancing drugs tarnished professional baseball not so long ago to realize that strategy rarely works in the long run. True, there would undoubtedly be some short-term risk of media reports that a school has toughened its drug policy, found that a certain number of athletes tested positive for drugs, and then sent them to treatment. But over the long haul, I think such a college would become known as a responsible, trustworthy institution, willing to tell the truth and protect the well-being of its students. Who wouldn’t want to send their son or daughter to a school like that?

Jayson Pratt
Director, Hill A. Feinberg Academy
Phoenix House Texas

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