In recent years, a number of scary-sounding names and acronyms have come into the public eye. BALCO. HGH. Biogenesis. Deer antler spray. And so on. While the details are shady, one thing is clear: our childhoods have been forever ruined by popular athletes like Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, and others, who cheated their way to the top using performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs.
Not all PEDs are designer drugs, of course. The NCAA bans eight classes of substances, from stimulants to steroids to hormones. This list includes well-known substances like amphetamines and human growth hormone, as well as seemingly innocuous ones like caffeine (in large enough doses). In fact, it is misleading to refer to the banned list as a ‘list’ — on the NCAA website (http://www.ncaa.org/wps/wcm/connect/public/ncaa/health+and+safety/drug+testing/resources/ncaa+banned+drugs+list) it says in bold, “Note to Student-Athletes: There is no complete list of banned substances. Do not rely on this list to rule out any supplement ingredient. Check with your athletics department staff prior to using a supplement.”
NCAA policy towards PEDs varies by division, according to Athletic Director Adam Hertz. “Divisions I and II are also required to have their own institutional testing programs that they execute throughout the year. Division III does not have that requirement, but many opt also test their students during the year.” Schools enforce the NCAA policy, as well as their own, if they differ. Hertz said that Swarthmore’s policy is identical to NCAA policy.
In the event of a positive test for any banned substance, the athlete is suspended for the season and loses one year of eligibility. In the event of a second positive test, the reaction depends on the kind of drug. For street drugs like marijuana, the punishment is the same. For a PED, a second positive test leads to permanent ineligibility.
Swarthmore, a Division III institution, does not test students during the year, but instead focuses on educating student-athletes about the issue. Hertz says the athletic department makes an effort to discuss banned substances during the pre-season meetings that are mandatory for each team. “When doing the NCAA paperwork, we have a discussion of banned substances and the ramifications for testing positive during an NCAA test. We let students know that some substances that are on the banned list could show up in various ‘supplements’ that one can buy from the local nutrition store,” Hertz said. “Students on prescription medication are also advised to communicate with the training room so we have the proper level of documentation in the event that there is an ingredient in the medication that is on the banned list.”
Although Division III schools like Swarthmore do not test during the season, the NCAA tests for PEDs and street drugs at championships. With the recent success of Garnet teams on the national level, this is when student-athletes would be tested. Hertz said there have been no recent incidents with PEDs. “We have been selected to test at past NCAA championships, but have not had any issues.”
Hertz and other students do not believe PEDs are a problem at Swarthmore, or in the Centennial Conference and Division III in general. Regarding whether there is a problem, Hertz said, “I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that we have enough sense to understand the longer term consequences that come with using these types of drugs.”
Student-athletes agreed with Hertz. Sophia*, a swimmer, was bitterly sarcastic when asked about PEDs, saying she uses banned substances “all the time.” Which? “It’s illegal in the US, and I don’t want to start an investigation.” Her sarcasm suggests that the idea of using banned substances is completely foreign to athletes on campus. Another swimmer, Ignotus*, shared a similar view: “I think I began thinking about using PEDs when I started considering if I was going to swim this year. But then I read on the interweb that PEDs come with various side effects, which corroborates a program I saw on the TV about PEDs and side effects.” Misha*, a lacrosse player, categorically rejected the idea of using PEDs, adding, “I don’t know any athletes at Swat that use any illegal PEDs.“
As it stands, the odds are far greater of a student-athlete testing positive accidentally, rather than willfully breaking the rules, especially considering the complicated nature of the banned substance list. This could happen in several ways. Leisha Shaffer, an assistant swim coach, described needing to wean a swimmer off soft drinks before the NCAA Championships one year, because the coaching staff feared the athlete would test positive for caffeine.
A more likely scenario would be a positive test due to a protein supplement containing a banned addition. Misha said he uses a pre-workout supplement with negligible caffeine, creatine, and “some other legal supplements,” adding that many other athletes do as well. He said he also consumes protein after practices. Ignotus said he and other swimmers would take protein shakes after practices while on training trip, but pointed out, “I’m not sure that anyone knows what was in that protein powder. We got into this kind of mentality, where one person didn’t check the ingredients, so the next person didn’t, and before you know it we were four days into an intense binge.”
Aside from protein powder, Ignotus said these protein shakes did not contain any other supplements. “A few staple items always found their way in there — some muscle milk, peanut butter, bananas, raw egg, ground up ibuprofen — the goods.”
Even a positive test from this is extremely unlikely though, as coaches and training staff make sure to only recommend legal supplements, and there are many legal ones on the market. Misha said he has never been recommended to take anything aside from a protein shake, adding, “I’ve had strength coaches recommend flaxseed oil, fish oil, and other supplements (usually everyday vitamins and minerals) that can be taken by pill to help optimize energy usage and aid in muscle recovery, but not supplements in the form of a gimmicky powder or pill.”
Considering these statements, there is no problem with illegal PEDs at Swarthmore, and if Hertz is right, in Division III as a whole. But while Swarthmore student-athletes strive to compete on an even playing field and stay healthy, they could accidentally test positive due to vagueness on the part of the NCAA. As Misha pointed out, “‘Supplements’ is a very loose term.”
*The Phoenix talked to several student athletes about PEDs and whether they use them. Although none use banned substances, anonymity was granted because the interview concerned potentially illegal activity.