Sports, not drugs

Drug tests of athletes at Sacramento State, UC Davis are uncertain, costly

As UC Davis and Sacramento State University gear up in different ways for their annual football battle known as the Causeway Classic, the two schools also have two very distinct game plans for testing student athletes for drug use.

The approach mirrors the national landscape for colleges and universities, where there is seemingly a dissimilar drug strategy for each school and no unified policy. About the only thing schools agree upon, is some drug testing needs to be in place, and it is costly.

“It’s a way to level the playing field,” Mark Honbo, an associate athletic director at UC Davis, said of drug testing athletes overall. “It’s a basic question of fair play and a way to make sure one school doesn’t have too much advantage over another and to discourage athletes from even casually considering it.”

UC Davis is among the schools that rely on an NCAA umbrella testing program. The NCAA contracts with a private organization known as the National Center for Drug Free Sport, which follows NCAA guidelines and uses urinalysis to detect what are called the big five: marijuana, amphetamines, heroin, opiates and PCP.

Sacramento State, as an NCAA member, uses the NCAA drug-testing program as well. However, the school also chooses to enforce its own separate drug-testing policy.

“We typically only test for recreational drugs but have the option to test for performance enhancing [substances],” Brian Berger, athletic media relations director for Sacramento State, told SN&R. “We test for recreational drugs because they are banned by the NCAA,” he said, adding he was “very surprised” other schools like UC Davis did not do so.

At the NCAA, surveys have found the use of performance-enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids or human growth hormone made famous from the BALCO and Major League Baseball scandal, have declined—or fewer athletes are being caught. However, those declines have been offset by a more recent rise in stimulants and what are considered recreational or street drugs, such as marijuana.

In the last month, for instance, six athletes at two high-level football programs, Louisiana State University and the University of Georgia, tested positive for marijuana and synthetic marijuana. There has also been an outbreak of steroid use among college football teams in Canada this year, leading to some speculation it is common in the NCAA.

“We can’t necessarily say it’s a trend, but we have seen a spike in stimulants and street drugs, and cannabinoids [synthetic cannabis] are considered a hot topic right now,” Mark Bockelman, director of NCAA testing for Drug Free Sports, explained to SN&R. Even so, he added that marijuana use among college athletes is still below national averages for all college students.

“Actually, those drugs, especially THC, can impede performance,” Bockelman said. “But [NCAA] members felt it was important to include recreational drugs out of concern for the primary health of athletes, and because they were seen as a gateway to using other drugs, such as performance enhancing drugs.”

The health concerns for those using performance-enhancing drugs are well-documented. In the past, athletes using such enhancers as anabolic steroids have experienced baldness, acne, shrunken testes and anger issues known as ’roid rage. Some performance enhancers have also been linked to cancer, and in the case of former baseball player Barry Bonds, reportedly increased hat size.

But for college athletes, as part of the confused world of drug testing, the odds of getting caught or punished can depend on the sport, the event, what institution is administering the test and what is ingested.

NCAA policies, for instance, require at least one drug-testing visit to every Division I and Division II school each year. Rather than the recommended but prohibitively expensive blood testing, the NCAA uses urinalysis. Complicating the issue, during the season the NCAA tests for performance-enhancing drugs, but during playoffs and championship events, it also looks for recreational drugs such as the THC in marijuana. The NCAA also tests some high-risk sports, such as varsity football and baseball, more than other sports. And some substances, such as synthetic marijuana are banned by the NCAA but not tested by its contracted organization.

Punishment is also dependent on whether the NCAA or a school is conducting the test.

Some schools have players miss games, others have athletes miss games after repeat offenses, and others have players undergo counseling. If the NCAA catches a player, though, the athlete is then suspended for a season.

On top of this, there is also uncertainty about how well drug testing works. Academic studies, including one at the Oregon Health & Sciences University, have found random drug testing does not reliably prevent student-athletes from using. The well-regarded World Anti-Doping Agency also recommends blood testing as more successful way to catch people.

Bockelman noted that there are also gray areas where athletes use a legally prescribed medication such as Ritalin used for Attention Deficit Disorder, but it is still banned by the NCAA. High levels of caffeine are also barred by the NCAA, as well. For one sport, rifle, the NCAA also bans alcohol. Bockelman explained that athletes at the elite level can improve their shooting by using alcohol to slow down their heart beat.

“The effectiveness is difficult to measure depending on what result you are desiring,” Sacramento State’s Berger concedes, while declining to reveal how many violations have occurred at his school. “Ideally, we would have all negative tests.”

Meanwhile, community college athletes in California, including those at Los Rios schools, do not undergo drug testing and it is not required by California Community College Athletics Association.

At UC Davis, the NCAA program is considered enough, though the school’s athletic conference, the Big West, has looked into implementing its own drug-testing regimen.

“The testing is pretty rigid and what they are looking for, including masking agents, is constantly evolving,” Honbo said, explaining why UC Davis does not feel the need to have its own testing program.

He also said the cost of a testing program for UC Davis’ roughly 600 athletes is also a factor, with costs running from $35 to $300 Sacramento State spends roughly $3,000 to $4,000 a year testing its approximately 400 student athletes.

“It’s pretty costly to do it and right now with the [state-budget cuts] we are trying to be fiscally wise,” Honbo said. “We assume the NCAA program is a good deterrent. We also tell are athletes to use caution, since over-the-counter medications like cold medicine could have something in it. So, check it out.”