NCAA to start drug-testing program in Division III

Updated: February 14, 2007, 3:01 PM ET
Associated Press

MENOMONIE, Wis. -- After police seized steroids from the homes of two of his linebackers, University of Wisconsin-Stout football coach Todd Strop fired off an e-mail warning his players to stop using drugs or quit.

"I am scared to know how deep the drug use is on this team, but we will, with your help, get it cleaned up," he wrote in the Dec. 21 e-mail obtained by The Associated Press in an open records request. "For those of you who are clean, I apologize for not knowing and we are proud of you."

Division III coaches at schools such as Wisconsin-Stout soon should be better able to understand the extent of drug use among their players.

Wisconsin-Stout and up to 115 other schools will participate in an NCAA pilot program starting next school year that will subject some of their athletes to random drug testing and require them to educate players on the effects of drug use.

The two-year program, expected to cost the NCAA $1.2 million, aims to determine how many Division III players use common street drugs and performance-enhancing substances. The findings will help decide whether the NCAA should implement a year-round testing program similar to those in Divisions I and II.

"The sense among our student athletes and our leadership is we need to get a better handle on the extent to which a problem might exist," said Dan Dutcher, NCAA vice president for Division III. "This will be our first venture into any kind of NCAA regular-season testing."

He said the goal is to improve the health of student athletes and ensure fair competition amid concerns about the use of performance-enhancing drugs at all levels of sports.

Division III athletes use social drugs such as alcohol, marijuana and cocaine more than their upper-division counterparts, according to an NCAA survey released in 2006. The survey found comparable levels of anabolic steroid use across all divisions.

The issue hit home in Menomonie, a city of 15,000 in western Wisconsin, in December when police seized liquid steroids and other drugs from the homes of Wisconsin-Stout football players Luke Steffen, a senior all-conference linebacker who led the team in tackles, and junior linebacker Nicholas OrRico.

The discovery came after police searched their homes one block from each other near the campus recreation center. A former player who left the team in 2005 also was arrested. All three face multiple drug charges and have pleaded not guilty.

Neither Steffen, OrRico, nor their attorneys returned phone messages.

The news shocked the university of 8,400 students and Strop resigned after three years as coach in January, weeks after sending the e-mail warning to his team.

Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Commissioner Gary Karner said Wisconsin-Stout and a handful of its members have asked to participate in the pilot program, which he said would yield significant data.

"We have a tendency to think some of the seedier things that go on in athletics, that we're immune. But those things can occur at any campus, at any level, at any time," he said. "The Wisconsin-Stout situation proves we're not immune to those pressures."

Even before the arrests, Wisconsin-Stout agreed to participate in the NCAA program. But the university said this month it would go further, implementing random drug testing for all athletes and requiring the entire football team to submit to testing this spring.

University spokesman Doug Mell said the policies will be among the toughest in Division III, whose institutions cannot award sports scholarships.

Ryan Ament, a Wisconsin-Stout running back who also competes in shot put for its track and field team, said he has no problems submitting to drug tests.

"I think it's a very smart move to set the standard to let everybody know this is a serious matter," said Ament, who was stunned by the arrests of his teammates. "We are Division III. I think it's getting a little out of hand if people are resorting to drugs at this level."

Many small schools have resisted such tests, in part because they lack the money to pay for them, don't think drug problems exist or believe they unfairly target student athletes.

Only 13 percent of Division III schools had drug-testing policies in place in 2005, according to the latest NCAA survey. And until now, the NCAA has done random drug testing only for championship competitions.

In the pilot program, up to 20 athletes at each school picked randomly by the NCAA will be required to give urine samples on short notice. The results will be given to schools in aggregate form, but individual violators will not be identified or face sanctions since it is only a research project.

The tests will be administered by the National Center for Drug Free Sport, the Kansas City group that tests for performance-enhancing substances in Divisions I and II. The pilot will go beyond those programs and test for other illegal drugs such as marijuana.

Frank Uryasz, the group's president, said calls for the testing came from athletes concerned about maintaining fair competition. Many small schools resist testing until athletes get in trouble, he said, but data indicate drug problems exist.

"What I usually hear from Division III is they believe strongly athletes should be treated the same as the rest of the student body and to single them out for testing is inconsistent with that philosophy," he said. "But I point to the NCAA drug-use study. If we can bring some of those drug-use numbers down by using drug testing, it ought to be considered."

Mary Wilfert, NCAA associate director of education outreach, emphasized a key part of the pilot program will be the educational efforts, including videos on the NCAA's banned substances and information on problems of substance abuse. She said the goal is to create an environment where drug use is not tolerated.

"We think it's going to have an impact across the board on all drug use," Wilfert said.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press