In the aftermath of quarterback Todd Marinovich's arrest for cocaine and marijuana possession, The Times has learned of a pattern in which some USC football players regularly cheated on their drug tests.
A two-week investigation has shown that some USC football players have learned how to get around drug testing by devising elaborate schemes to substitute "clean" urine for their own and also by using masking drugs.
Two days after Marinovich's Jan. 20 arrest in Newport Beach, USC took an official step toward addressing the problem. It formed a task force to investigate drug testing at the school. The group, chosen by Athletic Director Mike McGee, consists of Mike Garrett, Ron Orr and Barbara Thaxton, plus two others McGee declined to identify because they do not work for USC. Garrett is associate athletic director at USC, Orr assistant athletic director and Thaxton associate women's basketball coach.
The group, only getting started, has yet to offer any recommendations.
McGee, in an interview Friday, acknowledged that he was alerted to the problem more than a year ago but was unable to stop the practice.
"We heard in the fall of '89 that one of our athletes may have cheated on a test--not how it was done," McGee said. "At that point, we put into motion what we thought were some extra precautions that involved, in addition to a technician, a university administrator to be an observer."
Nevertheless, the word among USC football players is that the test can be beaten and that someone is always willing to teach how it is done. Interviews with more than 15 players indicate the following has happened with some regularity since the program was started in 1985:
--Urine believed to be "clean" is acquired from athletes and other students on campus.
--If little scrutiny is expected, the urine is brought to the testing area in a vial, bottle or package and simply poured into the testing cup when the observer isn't looking.
--If the player expects to be watched, a bladder pack filled with "clean" urine is strapped to a part of the body not visible, under an arm or under a shirt, for example, with a tube running to the pelvic area in order to simulate urination.
--The attention of testing officers is diverted by athletes, allowing other athletes to pour "clean" urine into the testing cup.
--A number of masking drugs, available at so-called "head shops" in Southern California, are purchased by athletes and these are taken with moderate success. "Head shops" are stores that sell, among other things, drug paraphernalia and non-prescription drugs allegedly to be used for health enhancement.
--If given 24 hours notice, athletes have consumed vinegar, cranberry juice and/or water in large quantities to flush illegal substances out of their systems.
Most athletes interviewed for this story would talk only on the condition their names not be used. An unwritten code of silence exists among USC football players since the Marinovich arrest. They fear being ostracized and fear having their name identified with drugs.
They also say that cheating on drug tests happens at every major university.
One player who was willing to address the subject on the record was Brandon Bowlin, a former USC defensive back.
"The situation was such that it seemed that they (tried to) catch those who they wanted to catch," Bowlin said, referring to the frequency with which some athletes were tested. "I didn't get tested all that often because I was a bit player. . . . But it was possible to get by on USC's drug test."
USC, among the first schools to institute drug testing, started testing all of its athletes in 1985. Initially, 10% of the athletes failed the test. USC says only 2% of the athletes now fail drug tests.
"Players get around drug testing all the time," said one former linebacker who has been out of USC's football program for two years. "(At USC) they were pretty flexible. They would watch you, but if you had the standard surgical tubing running down, you could fool them."
A former offensive player explained it this way: "(Players) would take someone else's . . . (urine) and have it in a bag that was taped to their back. They would then run an IV tube down between their legs. Then, they would have a clamp at the end that released the urine when you took it off . . . like you were really going to the bathroom."
Because there is no known study on beating drug tests, it is difficult to determine if this problem is unique to Southern California.
"There are a lot of drugs out there in Southern California," said one starter from last season's team. "I've been offered cocaine and marijuana a lot of times. People have come up to me at parties and just handed me a gram (of cocaine) for free. People want to give it to you and party with you because you're an athlete."
Another recent offensive starter said that USC testing procedures were so lax that it allowed cheating.