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State colleges limited in ability to test for drugs

Both Major League Baseball and the National Football League have been under the microscope for their drug-testing policies. But while their policies can be set on a national level and deal with relatively few athletes, Division I schools across the country have to deal with many more people and, in some cases, more layers of red tape.

The NCAA has been testing for anabolic agents — which are illegal unless prescribed — for well more than a decade. But until recently, the national testing was done only on a handful of football players and track and field athletes once annually. Teams reaching an NCAA championship competition in any sport are also subject to random testing.

More recently, that policy has been adjusted so football teams and one other random sport get the annual test.

With the NCAA testing no more than 10-20 football players once a year, for example, the schools have to decide if they want additional testing at their own expense. In Washington, state laws do not allow the schools to randomly test student-athletes, a rule that has left the state’s three Division I programs in a difficult spot.

“I think we would wish we could do our own drug testing too, like a lot of schools do,” Washington State Senior Associate Athletic Director Marcia Saneholtz said, “because our drug testing is based on reasonable suspicion.

“We do do testing on that policy, but the NCAA doesn’t test for street drugs when they come in and we know that marijuana is an issue on most college campuses, for example. We just have to look for other signs if we’re going to drug test and we think there’s a problem. But at a lot of institutions random drug testing is helpful as a deterrent.”

The NCAA does test for street drugs at national championship competitions, but their normal random tests target anabolic agents, peptide hormones, diuretics, urine manipulators and ephedra.

At WSU, someone must present that “reasonable suspicion” to a committee which can decide to test a player, according to head athletic trainer Bill Drake. If that first test comes back positive, the student-athlete enters a counseling program and is not punished in terms of eligibility until a second positive test. Retesting is done for up to one year.

When Drake worked at the University of Nevada, athletes across all sports were tested randomly on a weekly basis. At WSU, he estimates that fewer than five a year fall under the reasonable suspicion umbrella.

“We want it to be educational in nature first and punitive second,” Drake said. “We believe that the education part helps. We preach on steroids. We preach on supplements. We preach to be careful there.

“The second strike is a suspension determined by the administration and the coach, and the third strike is you’re gone.”

Eastern Washington head athletic trainer Brian Norton said his school’s policy is similar in terms of counseling, although one positive test – confirmed by an immediate re-test – can result in a 12-month suspension.

The University of Washington can’t test an athlete without first taking reasonable suspicion to the attorney general’s office at the school, according to Associate Athletic Director for Student Programs Dave Burton. Even then, student-athletes have the right to decline testing.

One positive test on the NCAA’s random schedule results in a 12-month suspension. Drake said he could not remember the NCAA random test for football falling outside the months of August, September or October.

The lack of random testing means that a student-athlete in Washington, if able to avoid suspicion, will never be tested by the university. A football player would, in theory, not be tested in the off-season, either by the NCAA or by the university.

“It’s restrictive for us at the college level. We would probably do things a little differently if the law was different,” WSU Director of Athletics Jim Sterk said. “I think we’re in pretty good shape. But maybe I’m naïve. There’s probably never enough education, but with the things we do, we’re careful.”


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