University of Oregon administrators play tug-of-war with random drug testing for athletes

Student athletes have a lot to juggle: school, work, practicing, competing, community service and attempting to fit a social life somewhere in the mix, all the while having their every move watched and scrutinized by the media and public as ambassadors for their school.  But when the University of Oregon’s student athletes returned to campus this September, they had one more thing to worry about: random drug testing.

This past summer, the UO athletic department decided to revise its drug testing policy to enable truly random testing. The policy change was accepted by interim UO President Robert Berdahl and passed on a temporary basis by UO General Counsel Randy Geller in late August, effective Sept. 1, 2012 through Feb. 28, 2013.

The swift pace with which the UO’s revised policy was put into action has some wondering whether April’s ESPN The Magazine article on the prominence of marijuana use at Oregon had any affect on timing of the rule. The article — which interviewed 19 former and current Oregon football players — suggested that between 40 and 60 percent of the team smokes marijuana. NCAA studies into student-athlete drug use show that the national average is 26.7, much lower than the Oregon estimate.

The athletic department said that the article had nothing to do with their decision and that this policy was already being looked at before the story ran in April. Head football coach Chip Kelly was quoted saying he didn’t believe the number but wants to use random testing to figure out just how many of his players are using drugs.

Though the policy went through the necessary legal steps pursuant to pass an Oregon Administrative Rule, the UO’s Faculty Senate believes the language of OAR 571-004-0020 makes it an academic policy, meaning it must be approved by the senate as laid out in the UO’s constitution and policy on policies.

One of the specific clauses the senate refers to reads, “these amendments and new rule are necessary for the following reasons. First, the University seeks to educate its student-athletes about the detrimental effects of drug use on their health, safety, academic work and future careers.”

Last Wednesday, UO senate passed a motion for the senate’s executive committee to advise Senate President Robert Kyr on what action to take regarding the policy. The executive committee will meet on or before Oct. 24 in order to review the amended policy and make their advisement. The problem in the matter is that both President Michael Gottfredson and General Counsel Randy Geller say the policy is an administrative policy, not for review and approval by UO senate.

“I’m always interested in taking advice from the University Senate,” Gottfredson said. “But I think the question here is, ‘Is this an administrative decision?’ and I think it appropriately is so.” Gottfredson says that interim President Berdahl made the right choice in not permanently passing the rule as to allow time for the UO senate to advise the new president on the issue before he can make a final decision.

Some faculty say the athletic department shouldn’t have passed a rule during a time when nobody was around to discuss the proper process or ramifications of the rule.

“Rob Mullens wanted random drug testing of his players, to cut down on the embarrassing ‘We smoked it all’ busts,” professor of economics Bill Harbaugh said. “But by trying to sneak the policy through during the summer, without consulting with the senate or even the Intercollegiate Athletic Committee, he ended up embarrassing President Gottfredson.”

Senate President Kyr noted that the UO senate is not itself claiming the rule is an academic matter; they point to the actual language of the rule as evidence for their argument. “The rule itself defines it as an academic matter, not the senate,” Kyr said. “It’s not a matter of our opinion, it’s what is said in the rule.” Many of the faculty senators don’t necessarily disapprove of the rule itself, but of the fact that it wasn’t put through the UO senate in respect for shared governance.

“I’m concerned about the process,” biology professor emeritus Frank Stahl said. “I think it’s terribly important, in fact more important than the items in this OAR, that the process outlined in the constitution be respected because if it isn’t respected it will die and so will shared governance.” Senators questioned the athletic department on why the rule needed to be passed urgently in the first place, whether it needed to comply with NCAA regulation or to meet some other standard.

“The timing on our part was that we wanted to get it started by the school year,” said Gary Gray, associate athletic director for compliance. “We’ve wanted to do this for years. It puts us in line with about 95 percent of our peer institutions.” He said that although the NCAA does mandate certain drug tests, they are loosely applied and are mostly to check for performance enhancing drugs at high level play. He said the athletic department wanted something applicable all-year round.

A 2007 NCAA study showed that 94 percent of Division I FBS schools have institutional drug testing policies on top of NCAA mandated tests. Oregon State University head football coach Mike Riley has also expressed interest in implementing similar policies at his athletic department. Despite putting itself in line with peer institutions, the UO’s policy was drafted in a uniquely Oregon way, calling for a four-strike system before a player is removed from their team.

The first failed test results in counseling and a psychological evaluation. The second failed test mandates a behavior modification contract between the athlete and the athletic department. A third failed test makes a player ineligible for the equivalent of half of a season, and the fourth and final failed test results in being kicked off the team and losing their scholarship.

Other Division-I FBS schools have much harsher penalties for the first few failed tests. At the University of Michigan, an initial failed test results in immediate suspension for one week of activities including competition and practice, while a second failed test prompts another suspension for one-third of the season. A third failed test leads to permanent removal.

Comparatively, the UO’s new policy is looser than most — as for the athletes, they see no difference in the way things are handled. Senior linebacker Michael Clay said that he and his teammates had fair warning before the policy went into effect and that nobody was shocked by it.

“It might make the guys with prescriptions for ADD and stuff like that a little nervous, but the medical staff has all the papers for what stuff guys are taking,” Clay said. “Everybody here knows what’s right and what’s wrong so it really hasn’t changed anyone’s mindset. Everyone knows what’s the right thing to do.”

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