Reports that All-American Warren Sapp flunked as many as seven drug tests at the University of Miami have raised serious questions about the effectiveness of drug testing in college football.
While the NCAA and a few conferences conduct random tests, much of the responsibility for detecting drug use by football players and other athletes is left up to individual schools.
The result is a patchwork system with no uniform rules or penalties, where one school can suspend a player for his first positive test and another can overlook numerous violations without taking any action.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said ESPN commentator Beano Cook. “All players should be tested regularly at all schools. And if they don’t like it, they shouldn’t play.
“It’s like when you enlist in the Marines, you know you’re going to crawl through mud with a rifle. If you don’t like it, don’t enlist.”
The NCAA doesn’t require schools to have drug-testing programs, but schools that do have programs must follow them. Failure to do so is a violation of NCAA rules, and can result in sanctions against the school.
“We give them a great deal of freedom to develop their own programs, but when they do establish rules, we expect them to be followed,” said Frank Uryasz, head of the NCAA’s drug-testing program.
A 1993 NCAA study showed that 65 percent of Division I schools did drug testing. One of the first schools to test athletes was Texas A&M;, which started in 1983.
Every Monday, Texas A&M; players are selected for random tests. A number from 0-9 is drawn from a bottle, and any athlete whose Social Security number ends with that digit must report for testing.
A first positive test results in mandatory counseling. A player is suspended after a second violation and kicked off the team following a third positive test.
“We feel it’s good for the school and good for the athletes,” said Karl Kapchinksi, the athletic department trainer who runs the A&M; program. “We want to help kids that have a problem, but we also want to discourage them from using drugs in the first place.”
Colorado used to have one of the toughest drug-testing policies in the country, but was forced to scrap the program after courts ruled that it violated athletes’ privacy. Athletes were given a one-year suspension for a first offense and banned from the team following a second violation.
“We were sorry to see the program go because we thought it was very effective,” Colorado spokesman Dave Plati said. “In five years, I think we ran 7,000 tests and only five were positive. The penalties were so strict that athletes were able to resist the peer pressure to do drugs.”
Athletes at Colorado are still subject to drug tests by the NCAA and the Big Eight, one of two major football conferences with a drugtesting policy. The Big Eight and Southwest Conference test football players during spring and fall practice.
“Many schools do their own testing, but we feel the league testing provides an additional safeguard,” Big Eight spokesman Jeff Bollig said.
The NCAA program, which includes general drug-testing at bowl games and year-round testing for steroids in football, was upheld by the California Supreme Court last year.
A Stanford diver had challenged the program, saying it was “degrading and humiliating” to give urine samples in the presence of a monitor and disputed claims that the program promoted fair competition.
But the California court ruled the tests were justified and that athletes had a “diminished expectation of privacy” because they dress and shower together and undergo frequent physical exams.
Athletes who fail an NCAA drug test can’t compete for at least one year. Failing a second test can result in a permanent ban.
“I think the NCAA program is very good, but there’s only so much they can do,” said Dr. Don Catlin, director of the UCLA lab that analyzes drug tests for the NCAA, NFL and U.S. Olympic Committee.
“They do about 12,000 tests a year, but when you consider the number of schools and athletes they’re dealing with, that’s probably not enough. I’m sure there is a lot (of drug use) that’s being missed.”
Miami is reviewing its drug policy following reports that Sapp failed several tests while playing for the Hurricanes. Sapp has admitted that he twice tested positive for marijuana, once as a freshman and once at the NFL scouting combine in February. Newspaper and broadcast reports claim Sapp failed from three to seven drug tests in college.
Dennis Erickson, who coached Sapp at Miami before going to the Seattle Seahawks, said he wasn’t required to suspend players who failed multiple drug tests under a revised school policy approved in 1993. But the university’s president and the school’s former compliance director said they weren’t aware of any changes in the original policy, which called for a one-game suspension after a second violation and a season-long suspension after three violations.
“It’s disturbing when you hear about situations like that,” Uryasz said. “But overall I think most schools do a good job of monitoring their programs.”
Despite some highly publicized cases of star players with drug problems, studies indicate that drug use among college athletes is lower than the general study body.
“Athletes tend to be more concerned with their physical well being,” said Arnold Washton, a drug abuse expert who has treated well-known athletes at his center in New York. “It’s just that they get more attention than the average person when they’re caught using drugs.”
Washton is opposed to blanket drug testing of athletes.
“I don’t think it’s necessary or even helpful,” he said. “Most urine testing procedures are ineffective anyway. They don’t distinguish a regular user from an occasional user. They only show whether a person has used a particular kind of drug in the last 3-4 days.”