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Case Fuels Drug-Testing Furor : Colorado Court Helps Draw Acceptable Parameters

September 09, 1989|ELLIOTT ALMOND | Times Staff Writer

David Derdeyn is a carpenter living in Hollywood, but perhaps someday he will be considered one of the architects of an acceptable drug-testing program in intercollegiate athletics.

Derdeyn, a one-time distance runner at Colorado, is the latest to challenge the constitutionality of a university's drug program.

In August, a district judge in Boulder, Colo., declared Colorado's program a violation of rights of privacy as well as an unlawful form of search and seizure.

The university was ordered to discontinue its two-pronged administration of random rapid-eye exams and collection of urine specimens.

Although it sent reverberations throughout the state, the ruling was simply another bump on the legal road of drug testing. It was not the first such challenge, nor experts agree, will it be the last.

But when a case such as Colorado's is heard, the thorny issues are hotly debated.

"I think any kind of random testing where you take a group of people and just test them, and ask them to prove they are innocent of drug abuse is unconstitutional," said Derdeyn, who earned a degree in art after serving in the U.S. Army in West Germany. "Just because someone is playing college football (or running) does not necessarily mean they are on drugs."

Derdeyn, 31, said he encountered the drug program as a walk-on runner in the spring of 1986. By the time cross-country season approached later that year, he had asked the American Civil Liberties Union to file a suit on his behalf.

Derdeyn maintains that the Boulder athletes are much less receptive to drugs than most at a school they call "Ski U." because of its party atmosphere.

"I've seen drug abuse up close," he said of experience in the army. "Athletes are way below normal. I thought my former teammates were great kids, but straight arrows almost to the point of being dull."

Nonetheless, Colorado officials ranging from Gov. Roy Romer to university coaches have criticized the ruling.

"The decision is discouraging," said Bill McCartney, football coach. "I'm worried about our players experimenting and sampling now. There is tremendous pressure on this campus to do it.

"What is the best interest of the student-athlete? I was so sure the judge would look at our program and say, 'That's the way it should be across the nation.' It's unacceptable, what he ruled. It's incomprehensible."

Whether the ruling is comprehensible is a matter of perspective.

For Derdeyn, as for Stanford diver Simone LeVant, whose 1987 challenge in Santa Clara County Superior Court forced the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. to cease postseason testing of Cardinal athletes, drug testing is an intrusion.

For many coaches, administrators and NCAA officials, drug testing is a necessary inconvenience to ensure a fair playing field and preserve the image of their institutions.

And where shall the twain meet?

"The NCAA wants to give the impression it's attempting to do something because it doesn't want drugs to affect its image," LeVant once said. "People seem to think that if you're not for drug testing, then you must be for drugs."

Said John Mason, a Washington attorney regarded as a constitutional expert on testing in the workplace: "I am a believer that people who are members of certain populations, I certainly include college football among them, ought to present themselves as drug free.

"If you want to play college football, given the importance of that to the university, the revenues involved, the prestige to the university, you're going to have to be clean."

Ed Chen, of the Northern California chapter of the ACLU, argued in the Stanford case that athletes are no different from everyday employees. Although Chen received a favorable ruling, one that an appellate court will review sometime early next year, the judge allowed the NCAA to test Stanford players in men's basketball and football. The reason: Those sports had accounted for all 34 positives of the 3,511 athletes the NCAA had tested nationwide.

The question remains, however, should athletes be treated different from other students?

Glen Mason, football coach at Kansas, thinks so. He said that when a football player in Lawrence, Kan., tests positive, he becomes front-page news. The message is clear: Athletes often are public figures, particularly in such college towns as Norman, Okla., or College Station, Tex.

Whether athletes' status will someday be better defined is unknown. Mason, the Washington attorney who formerly was general counsel for the Federal Railroad Administration, expects the constitutional issues to be clarified within five years.

The Supreme Court has not molded concrete parameters on testing in the workplace except in specialized cases such as with railroad workers after accidents.

The court has said that a compelling interest in the safety of lives or national security must be shown before it will allow infringements on basic freedoms.

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