TERRE HAUTE —
No matter the level of sport, drug testing can be a stealthy exercise.
To a degree, that’s by design. The very nature of random drug tests dictates that they are done without notice or pomp and circumstance. Privacy of the athletes who take the tests is paramount and is a valued part of the process.
Though positive tests that occur at an NCAA-sponsored event have specific penalties per sport, each school is charged with creating its own policies for regular season contests. It creates a gaggle of policies where there’s little uniformity among the NCAA’s schools.
One thing most NCAA schools have in common? Unlike professional sports, positive tests by collegians are almost never announced to the public.
The net effect is that drug testing among student-athletes is an exercise done in the shadows. The public almost never knows when a positive test occurs and student-athletes themselves are sometimes in the dark as to what their fate is if they happen to run afoul of the testing process.
Indiana State University’s athletic department has to deal with the reality of random drug testing as much as any other university has, but in its own way, it has tried to shine light on the process as much as is possible, at least as far as the penalties for a positive test are concerned.
ISU’s method is to make its policies so specific that when a positive test does occur, there’s no ambiguity among coaches and athletes as to what the penalty for a positive test entails.
No school in the Missouri Valley Conference has a penalty structure for a first-time positive drug test or substance abuse occurrence as specific as ISU’s policy is stated in its student-athlete handbook.
It could also be argued that ISU’s policy is the strictest in the MVC.
Of the MVC schools that have their drug testing policies and penalties available to the public, ISU’s is the only one that specifically spells out game suspensions for first-time offenders.
“As much as we like to see our kids go on to the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball, our job is to train our kids to be productive citizens and help them learn and develop skills,” ISU Director of Athletics Ron Prettyman said. “The fact that we’re holding them accountable for their actions and that they need to abide by the rules helps them for life after college. It’s something I’m really big on.”
For a first time positive test, the game suspension length depends on the length of each sport’s season. Baseball and softball players sit out three games because their season contains more contests. Basketball, soccer and volleyball have two-game penalties. All other sports have a one-game penalty for a first time test.
Genesis of policy
According to ISU compliance director Joel McMullen, ISU’s desire to strengthen and make its drug testing policies more specific stemmed from the death of ISU freshman and Terre Haute native Jordan Shaw-Tyler in December 2007.
Shaw-Tyler — who was to have played baseball for the Sycamores — was killed in a single-car accident on Hulman Street. Shaw-Tyler’s blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit, according to a 2007 police report.
“That was a scary moment and that’s when we really started looking at it. After that happened, we asked, ‘What are we trying to do to intervene?’” McMullen said.
Until recently, ISU had a policy much like that of its peer schools in which a first positive test had no suspension component. Upon a second positive test, a percentage of contests suspension kicked in, usually a 20 percent suspension.
But it was felt that the former policy created too many loopholes. Prettyman, McMullen and ISU athletic trainer Mitch Wasik were several contributors who helped formulate the most recent policy. Right Choice D.A.T., which administers ISU’s drug tests in Terre Haute, was also involved.
“It needed to be reviewed because it was fairly ambiguous. There were some issues that allowed for some inconsistencies which weren’t fair to the student-athletes as it applied sport-to-sport,” Prettyman said.
According to McMullen, ISU studied the way several schools did, or didn’t, implement drug testing policies before deciding on the language for its own. Ultimately, ISU decided to use Ohio State University’s policies as the framework for its own.
“We liked what Ohio State did. There’s some differences, but we put it together and submitted it to the coaches. For the most part, they were all on board with it. It was cleaner [than the former policy],” McMullen said.
McMullen said that the first-time positive test suspensions were codified prior to the 2011-12 season, but were tweaked prior to the 2012-13 season because an unintended loophole was created where underage alcohol offenders were punished more harshly than those who tested positive for illegal drugs.
How it stacks up
Drug testing policies vary widely in the MVC. Several schools have a policy similar to ISU’s previous policy in which a game suspension wasn’t levied until a second positive test occurred. Indiana University has a similar policy.
Drake University has a policy in which it makes a distinction between alcohol and drug offenses.
Other schools, such as Illinois State, do not have specific penalties listed for a positive test in their student-athlete handbook at all. Rather, discretion is given to the coach and athletic department administrators as to what penalty is levied.
The fear with a discretionary policy is that the inherent vagueness could create a temptation to treat offenders in some sports differently than others, especially those in high-profile sports, whose positive tests could be construed as more embarrassing to the university.
“I find it problematic to have somebody sign a consent to something and have vague rules, vague policies and vague consequences and that open up the door to selective enforcement,” McMullen said. “‘Well, let’s treat this sport’s kids different than this sport’s kids.’ We wanted [student-athletes and coaches] to know, ‘These are the rules and these are the consequences.’”
When ISU formulated its policy, there was no stated desire to create the strictest policy in the MVC.
“I think that’s more of a coincidence. I put myself in the shoes of a student-athlete or their parents. I want to know going in what the penalties are for any time of infraction I do to myself,” McMullen said.
How random is random?
The nuts-and-bolts of ISU’s testing policy are industry-standard as far as who gets selected for a test and how. To start, all student-athletes must sign drug testing consent forms. Refusal to acquiesce to a test is considered a negative test.
“We have the purely random selection; a computer randomizer pulls those kids. They usually test once-a-month across all sports. We have the repeat offender test in which you’ve tested positive in the past [and a new test] is to make sure you’re complying with your treatment,” McMullen said.
An oft-asked question by fans and coaches alike is how random does a drug test have to be?
Many are advocates for drug testing as an ever-present deterrent. For example, if a coach sensed that there might be substance abuse on a team, what’s to stop the coach from testing on a weekly basis?
There could be legal ramifications for that, however, according to McMullen. It likely wouldn’t serve its intended purpose anyway. Most of the substances ISU tests for stay in the bloodstream for at least two-to-three weeks, so redundant positive tests could create confusion.
Moreover, McMullen said the lack of a random element to testing would create a climate where student-athletes would be more likely to attempt to subvert the testing process because they’d know roughly when the tests are coming.
“According to what we were told by our drug testing people, if you have something in your system it usually takes 30 days to cleanse your system. If you test every week, it’s going to keep showing up,” McMullen said.
McMullen said that if a pattern of behavior is noticed, a student-athlete can be included in the next round of testing.
“If a coach may see certain behaviors — physical appearance, smell — whoever gets notified, usually me, we can tell athletic training, ‘The next time you do a test. I’d to suggest we test this person because we have concerns.’ If there’s an immediate concern, we’ll test them right there,” said McMullen, who noted that his department has been notified of potential problems by professors, athletic support staff and academic advisors.
Coaches have the discretion to create their own policies that are more stringent than ISU’s baseline policies. ISU men’s basketball coach Greg Lansing and men’s track and cross country coach John McNichols both said they reserve the right to dismiss athletes if they incur a second positive test.
Reaction to policy
The athletic department has said it has had the support of its coaches on its policies, and indeed, when contacted for the story, ISU’s coaches who chose to comment spoke positively of the policy.
“Our drug policy at ISU is set to act as a deterrent and help and hopefully rehabilitate any violators. The drug testing program at ISU is well understood and extremely fair to our athletes,” McNichols said.
“The only problem with our drug policy is that we don’t test enough. We send the correct messages to our student-athletes when we test often, unannounced and completely. The stricter penalties are good and appropriate,” ISU women’s cross country coach John Gartland said.
Privately, some coaches have complained that the policy is too strict for a first-time positive test and that exceeding the penalty standards of its competitors can put ISU at a competitive disadvantage. Especially if a positive test occurs at a key juncture of a season.
Prettyman would counter that the penalties are spelled out ahead of time to coaches and student-athletes, so there’s no surprise when a suspension takes place.
And in the end, he stands behind ISU’s policy whether grumbling takes place or not.
“Everybody knows it up-front. It’s something we cover during the first week of school in our mandatory student-athlete meetings. They know the rules. I don’t expect them to like it. Some coaches don’t like it, but they understand it and they know the reason we do it. We’re not surprising anybody with these policies,” Prettyman said.