I recently had one of the those "you-know-you're-getting-old moments." A few weeks ago, I was speaking to student-athletes at Utah Valley State College about drugs and supplements. An athlete asked a very good question and in a moment of weakness I decided to reply using a quote from Nancy Reagan. You know the one -- "Just Say No!" Well, it's safe to say that none of the students had any idea what Nancy Reagan, drugs and "Just Say No" had in common.
After the question-and-answer session, a colleague mentioned to me that the Nancy Reagan comment might not have had the impact I was seeking. I guess he thought I hadn't picked up on the silence in the room and the confused look on the students' faces. Anyway, after I made a mental note to update my repertoire, I started to think about the experiences that these athletes have had (or not had) and how those experiences shape their attitudes about drug use and drug testing.
This year's college freshmen were born in 1984-85, which means that they hadn't been born by the time Nancy Reagan started her anti-drug-use campaign in the early 1980s. They don't remember when Len Bias died in 1986. They were infants when the NCAA membership passed the first national collegiate drug-testing program in 1986. They don't remember when Brian Bosworth wore his "NCAA" (National Communists Against Athletes) shirt on national television after failing his NCAA pre-bowl drug test that year. They were 3 years old when Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. None of these events shaped their attitudes about drug use in sport.
Today's athletes relate to other experiences regarding substance abuse. They know the names of athletes who have died after the use of ephedra, but they might not know any who died from cocaine overdose. They know who Mark McGwire is but they might not be able to name an athlete who injected steroids and later died from heart disease or cancer. From their perspective, "athletes always have been tested for drugs." They see drug testing as something as ordinary as the preseason physical. In many cases, today's athletes have been tested for drugs while being employed in a summer job and believe it just comes with the territory. Have our drug programs kept up with their experiences?
Given athletes' acceptance of drug testing, it surprises me that there still are organizations that do not implement effective drug-testing programs. Granted, the average athlete might not know his sports drug-testing history, but he does know testing is necessary and is an effective way to maximize safety and to provide fair competition. It's time for all sports entities to adopt testing programs that provide safeguards for the athletes who compete in their events.
I really enjoyed watching the NCAA athletes competing for their countries in the Summer Games in Athens. I am fortunate to be able to see many of them compete at NCAA championships while we are on site conducting drug testing. In sports such as swimming, track and field and other Olympic sports, the collegiate athletes are tested numerous times by their schools, the NCAA and the Olympics testing entities such as USADA or WADA. It's because of these organizations' commitment to drug-free sport that we didn't have any positive tests from collegiate athletes before or during the 2004 Summer Olympic Games.
The job of "drug tester" is arguably one of the least glamorous in all of sport. We rarely get to see much of the competition. The hours are bad. Sports writers call us inane names. Moms and dads yell at us when their sons or daughters can't urinate on cue. The list goes on and on. Yet, like our colleagues who work long hours in the testing laboratory, we know that a vast majority of athletes understand and support the goals of the drug-testing programs. They deserve competition that is free from the pressures to use patches, gels, powders, oils and pills. Our job is to ensure that our education and testing programs are the best available and continue to operate at the highest level possible.
We have another job, too. We need to remember how pervasive steroid and other performance-enhancing drug use was before the implementation of collegiate drug testing in the 1980s. And when the naysayers complain that testing doesn't work and declare that we should abandon our deterrence programs we have an obligation to our young athletes to ... Just Say No.
Frank Uryasz is president of The National Center for Drug Free Sport.