Second Place Writing – Sports


Blowing Smoke

Originally published in the University Daily Kansan

Jason Swanson stands self-consciously in a bathroom. He’s not alone. An employee of Drug Free Sport, who he just met, watches Swanson as he washes his hands, drops his pants and urinates into a cup.

Less than a week later, Swanson, home in California for Christmas, gets a phone call from team physician Larry Magee. Swanson fears what comes next. About a week before his random drug test, he smoked marijuana with friends. Magee informs Swanson, then a junior quarterback for the 2004 Kansas football team, that he failed the Athletics Department’s drug test. He was relieved when Magee recited the department’s more lenient sanctions imposed on first-time drug offenders.

“It’s rehearsed,” Swanson said. “They tell you you’re going to have to

do three or four sessions with some kind of counselor or psychiatrist.

They just sit there and talk to you about drugs. It’s real elementary.”

Swanson said he was retested every 40 days and had to do extra running time in the morning.

“I didn’t miss any playing time, practice time, nothing,” he said.

Had he failed a drug test administered by the NCAA, Swanson would have been suspended from the team for his entire senior year. College drug testing is a puzzling system of policies, procedures and penalties wherein the discipline dished out to an athlete depends on who busted the offender. The NCAA, conferences and individual schools all test for banned drugs, but each is free to impose widely varying penalties for identical offenses. For example, the NCAA suspends an athlete for one year for marijuana use; Kansas requires counseling, more drug screening and extra running. The Big 12 Conference doesn’t test for marijuana but instead focuses on performance-enhancing drugs.

Testing is also more haphazard than random. Some Kansas athletes said they were here four years without ever being tested, even though KU policy requires all incoming athletes to be tested when they arrive.

While the NCAA and conferences come down hard on drug use, individual schools try to deter drug use with policies that the athletes don’t always take seriously.

“It doesn’t matter what the punishments are, people are going to do what they do,” Swanson said. “The punishment usually is just running, which we do all the time anyway.”

Kansas’ policy

The NCAA doesn’t require individual institutions to test their athletes, but most Division I institutions have a testing program in place.

Even though the NCAA, Big 12 and Kansas employ the same Kansas City, Mo., firm, Drug Free Sport, to administer drug tests, the penalties for the same offense uncovered by the same company for violating the same

NCAA rules depends on who paid for the test. NCAA rules don’t require

member institutions to report failed drug tests, and schools set their own penalties. Penalties for athletes who fail Kansas’ drug tests vary depending on whether they are a first-time or repeat offender.

For first-time offenders like Swanson, the athlete’s coach, sport supervisor, team physician, director of sports medicine and staff athletic trainer are notified, as well as the athlete’s parents and/or spouse. The athlete also enters a mandatory counseling and rehabilitation program and is tested once every 40 days for the next year.

Second-time offenders face the same penalties and are suspended from 10 percent of scheduled games or two games, whichever is less.

Third-time offenders are permanently suspended and lose their athletic scholarships and financial aid.

Almost everyone’s testing

According to a 2005 NCAA survey, 91 percent of Division I-A schools have their own drug-testing program. The Kansas athletics department began drug testing 10 years ago and has introduced changes since then.

Magee said the department was changing its program so athletes were

tested at least twice by their junior year. The first test would be given soon after they arrive on campus. Although these procedures are already written into the policy, some athletes slip through the cracks.

Matt Baty, a Kansas baseball player who finished his eligibility last season, said he was tested only once during his four years at Kansas. His test occurred soon after he arrived on campus his freshman year. Hassan Johnson, a former Kansas football player, said he was never tested. Johnson was in his fourth year when he left the team before the 2006 season.

Magee said he was not surprised some athletes had gone through their

careers without ever being tested, but said that should not continue to

happen with the changes.

Why they test

Kay Hawes, director of media relations with Drug Free Sport, said most colleges tested their own athletes to put a stop to drug use before the NCAA found out.

“One reason to do it is to avoid the public embarrassment of having somebody test positive in an NCAA test,” said Hawes, who didn’t mention the NCAA’s stiffer penalties that could sideline KU players.

Kansas athletes are subject to random tests at any time during the academic year by the NCAA, the Big 12 or the department. Drug Free Sport administers the test for all three entities and charges $150 per test, $175 if street drugs are included. The NCAA now tests athletes during the summer months, which started last summer with football and baseball players. Frank Uryasz, president of Drug Free Sport, said more sports would be tested this coming summer.

Magee said the NCAA and Big 12 usually tested athletes chosen at random on campus two or three times per year and during Big 12 championships and NCAA postseason play. The NCAA only tests for street drugs during championship competition but always tests for performance-enhancing drugs. During NCAA random drug testing, a school’s football team is always tested and then another sport is chosen based on the likelihood of anabolic steroid use in that sport.

Who gets tested

Magee said the University tested about 60 new athletes in the first few months of the school year and about 15 to 20 athletes each month after that. Drug Free Sport chooses which athletes are tested using a number generator that randomly selects athletes from a squad list.

For Kansas’ drug test, athletes are informed the day before. With the

NCAA, athletes are called early the same day. If an athlete does not show for an NCAA screening, it counts as a failed drug test.

During the drug test, an athlete is taken to a bathroom by a Drug Free

Sport proctor and must follow precise instructions with the proctor watching.

“If you’ve ever tried going to the bathroom when somebody is watching, it’s kind of hard to do,” Baty, the baseball player, said.

Despite the presence of a proctor, Swanson said he’s had teammates who told him they were able to cheat the system.

Uryasz said athletes have tried to cheat by bringing in someone else’s

urine, manipulating the sample by adding compounds to the urine to make it difficult to test or by over-hydrating and diluting the test.

“Those attempts are not successful if the validator is doing his job,” Uryasz said.

When athletes over-hydrate and water down results, they have to stay until they are able to provide a concentrated sample, Uryasz said.

Magee said the department had never caught a KU athlete foiling a drug test.

“They understand it’s going to be a situation where they really can’t cheat,” he said.

The urine sample is screened for all of the classes of drugs banned by the NCAA during a KU drug test or an NCAA championship drug test, including stimulants such as methamphetamine, cocaine, anabolic steroids, diuretics, growth hormones and street drugs, such as marijuana. During a Big 12 or random NCAA test, they test only for performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids. Drug Free Sport also screens for urine manipulators and masking agents used to skew drug testing during all tests.

What athletes use

An athlete who tests positive during an NCAA-given test is suspended from competition for one year and a second offense results in a lifetime ban if the drug is a performance-enhancing substance. A second offense for a recreational drug brings another one-year suspension. The Big 12 suspension is also one year for any performance-enhancing drug.

According to the results of testing during the 2004 NCAA championships, 17 student athletes tested positive for street drugs, 14 for stimulants, three for diuretics or manipulators and two for steroids.

The Athletics Department declined to provide a similar summary of its drug testing results.

In a survey of student athletes by the NCAA in 2005, only 1.2 percent of the 8,543 Division I athletes sampled admitted to using steroids. In comparison, 17.3 percent said they had used marijuana.

Swanson, Baty, Johnson and former baseball player Jared Schweitzer said that they had not witnessed steroid use by KU athletes.

“Not here,” Swanson said. “The guys are too little to be on steroids.”

However, both Baty and Schweitzer said they had teammates from other schools on summer teams who used steroids during the summer months when they weren’t being tested. Schweitzer said he was never tempted to join in.

“I just always played baseball and was good at it and I never had to take steroids to be good at it so why would I start taking steroids?” he asked.  “I never got into it. I’m not that big of a guy to begin with. I never got into taking steroids and trying to get bigger.”

If a Kansas athlete arrived on steroids, he or she could still leave with a clean slate. New student athletes who test positive for any drugs face the same penalties as any first-time offenders, but that positive test doesn’t count as a strike against the athlete. If that athlete tested positive again, it would count as a first offense.

Magee said coaches were not allowed to kick a player off the team after a first drug offense, although he said a player who violated other team rules and tested positive for drugs could be dismissed.

Weak penalties

Swanson tested positive during a random drug test given by Kansas. He said he was then tested 12 to 15 times during the next year. One of those tests was an NCAA test that Swanson and about 30 other teammates were randomly selected to take before the Fort Worth Bowl.

Swanson was critical of the counseling sessions he was required to attend after a positive test. Swanson said he had to fill out a drug awareness packet, which included information on heroin and meth.

“I’m like, ‘I just smoked a blunt. That’s all I did,'” he said. “It’s like real unnecessary but it’s just what they do. I understand. I did it without any quarrel. I didn’t put up a fight. I just did it. It wasn’t that bad.”

It was, in fact, a slap on the wrist for Swanson, who would have missed his entire senior season had the NCAA given the test. Until colleges have more comprehensive programs and stiffer penalties, Swanson said athletes would continue to not take drug tests seriously.

“It’d be way different,” he said.