EL PASO – Almost every child has had a dream of being a famous athlete or sports superstar, but only a small percentage actually achieves this dream while still in college. For the talented lucky few who do make it into college sports, sometimes a wrong choice – abusing drugs or alcohol – can swiftly end the dream.
Wrong choices almost ended the collegiate athletic career for Tom (not his real name), 25. He tested positive on a drug-test in 2009 after he smoked marijuana while on the football team at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). But he said he learned his lesson and he made sure not make the same mistake again. After this incident Tom got tested for drug use several more times, but he never failed again.
“I knew I had made a mistake; it was one time thing and not a problem that I needed to deal with on regular basis. I made sure that things like that do not get in my way to reach my goals,” he said.
Temptations lurk almost everywhere for college students, but UTEP does its best to protect student athletes from making bad choices about drug and alcohol use through education and consistent drug testing.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) shares responsibility with its member institutions to promote a drug-free athletic environment as well as to ensure fair competition among student-athletes.
The NCAA conducts drug tests on thousands of Division I and Division II student-athletes each year looking for steroids, diuretics, street drugs, ephedrine, and peptide hormones.
Penalties for positive performance-enhancing drugs (PED) and street drugs are very strict and automatic in the NCAA. Student-athletes lose one full year of eligibility and are also withheld from competition for the full year for the first positive test for both PED and street drugs. The second positive test for street drugs results in another lost year but student-athletes who test positive for PED lose their eligibility permanently.
A 2009 National study of substance use trends among NCAA college student-athletes showed that in 2009, 83 percent of student-athletes indicated use of alcohol within the last twelve months, or 5.6 percent more than in 2005. Alcohol is not the only substance abused that increased from 2005 in this group. Use of marijuana, cigarettes and spit tobacco also increased. Research indicates that use of marijuana has increased from 21 percent in 2005 to 22.6 percent in 2009.
UTEP officials will not release the precise number of athletes who tested positive for PED and street drugs, citing confidentiality. “More people are being tested but less people are testing positive, percentage is going down,” said Head Athletic Trainer Dawn Hearn about student-athlete drug testing results.
As Hearn explains, there had been years with higher numbers of positive test results, but “lately” the numbers have declined.
NCAA spends around $1.5 million annually for different drug-education programs at their member colleges and universities throughout the nation. The NCAA also invests more than $4.5 million every year for drug-testing procedures and research. In addition to the NCAA drug-testing program, 90 percent of Division I schools like UTEP have their own school drug-testing programs.
To protect student-athletes from making poor choices involving drugs and alcohol, UTEP has a strict drug testing policy. “We test 25 athletes a month,” explained Hearn. “It is a random list of student-athletes.” The list is drawn by Senior Associate Athletic Director and Senior Women Administrator Lisa Campos.
According to the UTEP Student-Athlete Handbook, neither the University nor the Athletic Department condone the misuse of drugs and alcohol and recognizes that it is a potential problem, especially for student-athletes.
Hearn said the penalties for testing positive on a UTEP drug test are not as strict as in the NCAA drug testing.
At UTEP, when a student-athlete tests positive for the first time the head trainer immediately schedules a counseling session to determine how serious the problem is and how much counseling is needed.
“The drug-testing policy is not to catch somebody,” said Campos. “It is to help if someone has an issue…”
Counseling helps the student-athlete by offering treatment not punishment and help resolve his/her issue. The counseling helps the student-athlete refrain from further alcohol and drug use.
“We do really good job, I think, of educating and helping people who need help,” Campos said.
If student-athletes test positive again, they receive more counseling and are suspended from engaging in sports activities with the team.
A third positive drug test results in dismissal from the team and the possibility that the student-athlete’s scholarship may be revoked. The student-athlete may be reinstated only after he or she completes a qualified drug rehabilitation program approved by the Athletic Director.
A fourth positive test ends the student-athlete’s career at UTEP, with no possibility of reinstatement. Each time a student-athlete tests positive, the Athletic Director, the Compliance Office, the Head Coach, and SWA are notified.
According to the Student-Athlete Handbook, the goals of drug education and screening are “to educate student-athletes on the physiological and psychological dangers inherent in the misuse of drugs and alcohol, and to prevent the use and distribution of performance enhancing substances.”
The Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) organizes events and invites speakers to talk on campus to educate student-athletes on various subjects including drug and alcohol abuse. SAAC is a part of the Life Skills program at UTEP, developed to provide student-athletes with a complete collegiate experience in athletics, academics, and social life.
“We prioritize speakers every semester based on funds available,” said Amelia Baryla, a Life Skills coordinator.
In the Spring 2012 semester, Life Skills and SAAC organized a fun activity for student-athletes called “PowerAde Pong” which was mandatory for all student-athletes.
“The PowerAde Pong event was a great event for our student-athletes to participate in a fun activity while also getting valid information about alcohol prevention,” said Baryla. “As our student-athletes participated in the event, we had an MC verbalize various alcohol statistics to our student-athletes every 60 seconds.”
Every new student-athlete at UTEP must go through Student Orientation, where different departments from the UTEP campus talk to student-athletes.
“Student-athlete drug tests are necessary and very useful; they help student-athletes to be honest and to continue to be honest, as well as don’t give other athletes’ advantage by taking some illegal substances,” said Marissa Rodriguez, freshman guard of UTEP’s Women’s basketball team.
In past years, UTEP has done a good job in educating and protecting student-athletes from ruining their athletic careers as well as their lives off the playing fields, UTEP officials say.
Besides random drug testing of athletes, any one can be tested if they are having some problems at school or have gotten in trouble at the Miner Village, the student housing facility. Coaches and trainers offer mentoring and advice to student-athletes and try to make sure they get help as soon as possible if they need it.
“I believe that students are well educated because education on alcohol and drugs starts in elementary school,” Baryla said. “On the other hand, I believe there is always more education that can be given later and that messages can be reinforced.”