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Drug War Takes Aim on College Athletes


The war on drugs marches ever forward. Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega, the former drug-running dictator, is safely held in a Florida lockup. U.S. warships are heading for the coast of Colombia. And now we are aiming our sights at the American college campus, where, apparently, football players are the next target.

Now, I'm not naive. I know all about college kids, having been one once myself. Given the chance, they swallow goldfish. They throw up at parties. They see how many people they can stuff into a BMW (hey, no self-respecting college kid would be caught dead being stuffed into a Volkswagen these days). And, yes, some of them unfortunately take drugs. Some of those who take drugs are probably football players, though perhaps not all of them, or even most of them.

And yet, the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., in its wisdom, has overwhelmingly voted year-round, mandatory drug testing for football players as well as continued championship-event-only drug testing for other college athletes.

There will no drug testing, however, for English majors. Or psych majors. Or even psychos (you had 'em in your dorm, didn't you?).

Does this seem fair?

It does not seem fair at all to those colleges in the Ivy League, whose member institutions unanimously rejected the proposal -- the vote was 569-111 -- at last week's semi-revolutionary NCAA convention.

"In the Ivy League approach, our athletes are truly part of the student body," said John Parry, athletic director at Brown. "We don't give scholarships, we don't have athletic dorms, we don't even have training tables. To single athletes out, especially when there's no evidence that athletes are any more prone to drug use than any other student, is sort of outrageous."

Why single out football players? Well, as it happens, the decision was not completely arbitrary. Football players are more likely than most other athletes to use anabolic steroids, which have been proven dangerous, though not illegal. Steroids are apparently bad for one's health and also apparently give a performance advantage to those who use them. Colleges should want to clean up this problem, especially since coaches have routinely winked at, or in some cases, even encouraged steroid abuse. Under the new program, testing will be for steroids as well as for so-called street drugs.

A first violation would result in a one-year suspension. A second would yield a ban from intercollegiate sports if the violation is for steroids, or another one-year suspension if for street drugs.

Dick Schultz, the NCAA executive director, said the expanded testing program was needed because, under the previous method, "we are only catching the dumb ones."

Random testing will no doubt catch other, smarter athletes, but at what cost? Is it worth giving up certain rights to privacy that are available to all others on the college campus?

There were already challenges to the old rule, which required testing at NCAA championships. A Stanford diver who refused to be tested was upheld in state court. Similar rulings hold in Oregon and Washington, meaning that many schools in the Pac-10 probably will not be able to enforce the new drug-testing package. If Pac-10 schools can't test, should the Big Ten? Should anyone?

But it is no easy matter, given today's climate, to challenge drug testing. Those who do run the risk of being labeled pro-drug, no matter how strongly they state their opposition to drug use. Most athletes, if asked, would almost certainly volunteer to take the test. It is the protection of the minority, however, for which the Bill of Rights, a document still taught on most college campuses, was intended.

There is some irony in this NCAA decision to test football players. The spirit of the recent convention held that athletes should be treated like other students. Proposal after proposal was introduced to lessen the gap between student and athlete. But as the convention ended, the gap became chasm-like on the volatile issue of drugs.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Are athletes college students or are they something different? If we believe they're really students, then we have to wonder how or why they can be singled out.

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