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Expert: TCU bust sign of increased pot problem

Published: Friday, Feb. 17, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST

Maybe this week’s drug bust at TCU shouldn’t surprise anyone.

National Center for Drug Free Sport vice president Andrea Wickerham said the arrests of four football players among 15 TCU students and four former students on suspicion of selling marijuana is symbolic of an increasing pot problem in college athletics.

She hopes administrators across the nation are paying attention.

“I hope they don’t see this event at TCU as an isolated incident. It’s not,” she said. “The question is, ‘What does TCU do about it?’ and what do other college administrators do?”

The arrests at TCU came Wednesday, a month after the NCAA said that 22.6 percent of 20,474 student-athletes participating in an anonymous survey in 2009 admitted to using marijuana the previous 12 months. That number was up from 21.2 percent in 2005.

Among the most high-profile sports, across all divisions, 26.7 percent of football players and 22 percent of men’s basketball players admitted in 2009 to using marijuana the previous year. Both were up significantly from the 2005 numbers (21.7 percent and 18.6 percent, respectively).

The report has been done every four years since 1985 and alcohol always has been the overwhelming substance of choice. Marijuana is No. 2. The NCAA tests for marijuana at its championship events and football bowl games but not in its year-round testing program that has been in place since 1990.

In 2009-10, the most recent academic year for which data is available, 72 of 1,645 tested athletes (4.3 percent) turned up positive for marijuana.  That was up from 28 of 1,799 tested athletes (1.6 percent) in 2008-09.

Chris Herren, a former player at Fresno State who struggled with cocaine and marijuana in college and during his brief stay in the NBA, said his marijuana use in high school led to his well-documented problems. Herren, who said he has been clean since 2008, travels the country lecturing high school and college athletes about the dangers of street drugs.

Herren acknowledges the power of addiction. But with a clear mind now, he said, he can’t help but find the survey findings and NCAA testing results disheartening.

“We can sit here and say marijuana is no big deal,” he said. “But in [athletes’] situations, it is a big deal. If they’re willing to throw away $200,000 of their education because of a blunt or a bong, let’s be honest, something’s not right there.”

The National Center for Drug Free Sport administers drug tests for more than 250 colleges as well as the NCAA. Wickerham said testing is the most effective deterrent and works best if it is consistently inconsistent.

“You want to test often enough so athletes truly believe they have a likelihood of being selected,” she said. “If you’re only doing it once a semester, or if you do it only when you hear about a bad event, that’s not a huge deterrent over time.”

More than 90 percent of the schools in Division I, more than 50 percent in Division II and about 20 percent in Division III have drug-testing programs, NCAA associate director of educational affairs Mary Wilfert said. Many offer counseling and treatment programs for those who test positive. It is common for an athlete to be suspended for a year, or permanently, after a third positive test.

Seminars addressing the dangers of substance abuse and outlining testing programs and penalties are annual events at many colleges.

Still, the evidence shows marijuana use is on the rise, despite what Wilfert said was an intensified effort the past four or five years to curb its use.

The NCAA and athletic departments are exploring ways to keep athletes from using marijuana or stopping the activity. Wilfert said peer intervention has become a popular tactic, with non-using athletes talking to marijuana-using teammates about the potential risks.

“One of the things we want to emphasize is that most student-athletes are not using – and the most recent substance-abuse report supports that,” Wilfert said. “It is something to note and part of the (education) strategy, that most students make good choices.”

TCU said in a statement Wednesday that it tests its athletes for drug use “on a regular basis.” At Nebraska, which started drug testing in the 1980s, an athlete is selected at random or if there is reason to believe he or she is using illegal drugs, athletic director Tom Osborne said.

Nebraska athletes can expect to be tested as many as three times a year, either by the school, Big Ten or NCAA. Historically, Osborne said, fewer than 2 percent of athletes at Nebraska have turned up positive for any banned substance.

“Most of our student-athletes realize there isn’t going to be a six-month window or three-month window where they can violate the substance-abuse policy without any risk of getting caught,” Osborne said.

Wickerham and athletic administrators have discussed whether more lax laws for possession in some states and increased use of medical marijuana has, in part, led to more acceptance of pot in society at large. Herren said some athletes might look at marijuana as an escape from the pressure to perform and the increasing scrutiny, much of it from fans on social media.

“A kid goes to an AAU tournament and then reads 10 minutes after the game he’s not worthy of a scholarship or that he doesn’t jump high enough. It’s got to be detrimental,” Herren said.  “Adults, if they were critiqued day in and day out about their performance at work, usually that results in them stopping off for a glass of wine or beer after a stressful day. So what does a 14- or 15-year-old do? They tend to search other avenues.”

Herren, who spoke to athletes at the University of Florida last week and will go to the University of Oregon next week, said there is only so much the schools can do to protect the athletes from themselves.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “you can’t baby-sit and follow around kids every Friday and Saturday night and see what they’re doing.”

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