A Better Drug Testing Policy

Welcoming an End to Off-Season Testing of Athletes

By Jacob Fass


When Kenyon coaches bring potential athletic recruits to campus, they tell them about the features that distinguish the school from its competitors. Students hear about our magnificent athletic facilities, our tight-knit sense of community and our culture that allows athletes to balance the demands of sports and academics. What they probably do not hear about is Kenyon’s unusually strict drug testing policy.

Despite the fact that the National Collegiate Athletic Association does not require that colleges finance their own drug testing programs, Kenyon is part of the 21 percent of Division III athletic programs that do. While Division I and II schools must conduct random drug tests throughout the year, DIII testing is only mandated at championship games. Even among the 21 percent of DIII schools that do test for drugs, Kenyon has been unusually stringent. Our current policy calls for the year-round testing of athletes, including those who are injured or out of season. But last fall, under the direction of the DIII Presidents Council, Kenyon decided to end its year-round drug testing for the following year. While reactions to this measure have decidedly been mixed and many coaches have expressed fear that this policy will lead to a more permissive attitude toward drug use, the policy revision is clearly an improvement with respect to privacy and efficacy.

The NCAA began its drug-testing program in 1986 at championship tournaments, and expanded it into a year-round program for DI and DII athletes in 1990. The objective of the policy was to promote the health and safety of student athletes, as well as ensure a competitive playing field free from the influences of steroids and other performance-enhancing or mind-altering drugs. Failing an NCAA-administered drug test can have serious consequences, including loss of eligibility or permanent expulsion from the team. But the NCAA does not mandate any specific penalties for school-run drug testing programs; it requires only that schools set and enforce their own consequences for a failed test; Syracuse, for instance, was recently sanctioned for not following the terms of its own drug testing program.

The Supreme Court held in Veronia School District v. Acton that high schools can require drug tests as a precondition for participation in athletics even if the athlete is not suspected of any wrongdoing. The majority opinion, as written by Justice Scalia, held that while these drug tests constituted a “search” under the purview of the Fourth Amendment, students and student athletes in particular had reduced expectations of privacy. The school district, Scalia reasoned, had a vested interest in reducing drug use among its athletes, and that this interest justified the school’s use of intrusive measures to achieve this goal.

While this may seem reasonable, especially for DI in which students receive expensive scholarships to play sports, it is worth considering the arguments of Justice O’Connor, who dissented in the case. O’Connor noted that the court had previously objected to sweeping blanket searches, in which a person’s privacy could be revoked without probable cause. The searches, during which a monitor may supervise an athlete even while he or she urinates, as well as give the school information about his or her personal habits, are clearly an invasion of privacy.

If we are willing to tolerate this intrusion, we must be certain that this is a necessary and effective way to discourage drug use. Unfortunately, we have not achieved that level of certainty, as recent studies have suggested that testing is an ineffective deterrent to illicit drug use. A two-year survey conducted by the Oregon Health and Science University, for example, concluded that random drug testing did not reduce the rate of athletes who used drugs in the 30 days before their tests. Moreover, drug use among student athletes is much less prevalent than it is among the general population. This is likely due to the commitments and pressures of athletics, which leave little spare time for drug abuse. In addition, Robert Taylor of the Cato Institute found that when intrusive drug tests raise the costs of participating in sports, a marginal athlete is more likely to leave the athletic program and abuse drugs more than he or she would have otherwise.

An ideal drug policy is one that best achieves the NCAA’s goal of ensuring the health and safety of all student athletes. While tests for steroid use and other performance enhancers may be necessary to ensure a fair competition, the DIII Presidents Council’s decision made clear that this was not a major issue for DIII athletes. Unlike street drugs or performance boosters, alcohol abuse is the biggest threat to the health of student athletes and is almost impossible to test.

We should not have a drug-testing program that is invasive and humiliating to our student athletes; such a policy has negligible benefits for the welfare of students. Kenyon should move away from random drug testing toward a policy that instead focuses on education and communication between the student body and the athletic department. Our decision to stop year-round drug testing is a step in the right direction.

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