One of the biggest deterrents in the drug-testing program for East Tennessee State University’s athletes is “the call.”
Any athlete failing a drug test must meet with their coach, an administrator and a member of the training staff and make a call on a speakerphone to their parents. The student-athlete then must inform the parents that he or she has failed a drug test.
“It’s a very uncomfortable phone call,” said Brian Johnston, ETSU’s director of athletic medicine. “But it lets mom and dad know we really do care about these kids and we’re trying to help them. We want to get ahold of this and stop it from happening.”
The NCAA visits each Division I and II school every year to conduct random tests. Any testing in addition to that is up to the individual institutions. According to the NCAA’s website, 90 percent of Division I schools conduct their own drug-testing programs.
ETSU’s is an education-based program. At the beginning of the school year, Johnston gives a presentation to all of the university’s athletes outlining the athletic department’s drug-testing program. Each one is required to sign a release form acknowledging they can be tested at any time.
The tests, mainly for street drugs, are random. Once an athlete is informed he or she has been chosen to be tested, they have a certain amount of time to show up for the test, processed by the toxicology lab on campus.
“Our goal is to, first of all, provide great education to our student-athletes in terms of some of the problems and dangers being involved with drugs can have,” said Dave Mullins, ETSU’s athletic director. “We think we do a very good job of educating our young people.
“Our program is really geared toward helping young people succeed, and if there is a problem, we feel like there’s a chance for early intervention and helping them get a handle on it.”
If an athlete fails a drug test, they must undergo counseling but their eligibility is not immediately affected, and the call to the parents is made.
Then, in whatever time is determined it takes the substance to clear the body, they are tested again. If it’s positive for a second time, the same discussion happens as does another phone call. And the athlete is suspended for 10 percent of his team’s games.
A third positive test brings dismissal from the team.
“That’s when you’re looking at suspending all activity at ETSU and your financial aid is in jeopardy,” Johnston said.
The recent drug-related arrests of ETSU basketball players Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose brought to light the potential of drugs in the athletic department. Cooley and Dubose have been dismissed from the team.
Johnston has been in his current role at the school since 2003 and says in that time there hasn’t been an athlete with a second positive test.
“We have had our issues with things, but we’ve never gotten to a second positive test,” he said.
Because of privacy laws, ETSU won’t divulge many details about test results, but Johnston says around 45 athletes are tested each semester. It is believed about five percent of the tests turn up a positive result.
“It doesn’t affect just them, it affects the whole team,” Johnston said. “You have to walk into that locker room and see your teammates. It’s tough.”
But it’s not as tough as that phone call home.
“Those calls are very painful for me too,” Johnston said. “I always imagine myself having to make that call to my mom, and breaking my mom’s heart is the last thing I’d want to do.
“It’s all part of the presentation at the beginning of the year. I tell them ‘If you test positive, we’re gonna go in a room and make a call on speakerphone. When you test positive for drugs, you did it. That was a decision you made, a bad decision. And you have to deal with those consequences.’ ”
ETSU’s program also allows athletes to voluntarily enter a treatment program if they have a substance-abuse problem.
The NCAA tests for steroids as well as other substances, and a positive test earns a 365-day suspension from athletics.
Athletes are also subject to random testing at each NCAA championship. The NCAA conducts about 13,500 tests each year.
“The punishment for failing an NCAA drug test is a severe punishment,” Johnston said. “We have 260, 270 athletes. We know them all. When something does happen, it affects all of us. We are all very close. We don’t want anything bad to happen to anybody.”