In the wake of news that Syracuse is facing potential violations of NCAA Bylaw 10.2, people are asking why schools drug test at all. Bylaw 10.2 does not require schools to have a drug testing program, but does require them to follow the program, especially the consequences for positive tests, if they have one. If a school fails to adhere to their drug testing program, it faces the possibility of going on probation, which would in essence mean NCAA monitoring of the school’s institutional drug testing program. Why expose yourself to these risks, the theory goes, if the rules don’t require you to?
Ignore for a moment a number of very good reasons to have a drug testing program: the health of athletes, identifying individuals who need treatment and help with a problem, and the fact that in a lot of cases taking recreational or performance enhancing drugs is illegal. Also ignore for a second the idea that maybe the NCAA’s rules should just be the floor for what is required and schools so go above and beyond them sometimes. Even if all an athletic department cares about is winning, it should still have a drug testing program, simply because the NCAA does.
The NCAA conducts drug testing both at championship sites and as part of a random, year-round testing program. Most schools can probably expect a visit once or twice a year, although a positive test at a school may draw more frequent testing for a while. Year-round means year-round too; the NCAA has tested baseball players up in Alaska during summer ball, for example.
The penalties for a positive NCAA drug test are hefty. For the first offense, student-athletes lose a season of competition in all sports and are suspended for 365 days. If a student-athlete tests positive a second time for a recreational or street drug (a designation only three substances have, everything else is considered performance enhancing), the athlete faces the same penalty: lose a season of competition and sit out for a year. If a student-athlete’s second positive test is for a performance enhancing drug, he or she loses all remaining eligibility in all sports.
If an institution does not conduct drug testing, that means when the school receives notice that athletes will be drug tested by the NCAA (typically a day or two in advance), it has no idea which athletes might be on the verge of a year-long suspension, and has done nothing to help those athletes possibly avoid that fate.
From a cynical standpoint of just what helps the athletic department competitively, volunteering to suspend athletes for 25% of the season, for example, is a lot better than hoping they do not lose whole seasons at a time. When they are done well, institutional drug testing programs have a therapy or rehabilitation component, are good examples of progressive discipline, and remind student-athletes of the consequences of a positive NCAA drug test which might come infrequently but carries dire consequences.
The loss of a season of competition can add up quickly because it is in addition to the use of eligibility for competition. So if an athlete plays in the first game of the season, then has a positive NCAA drug test, he or she has used one season of competition and loses another season of competition for the positive test. ↩