No Drugs! Death, Maybe

How many student athletes die from steroid use? That was the first thought to cross my mind after hearing that Clemson players, Dexler Lawrence, Zach Giella and Braden Galloway, were suspended from the BCS Championship Playoff. Despite having filed an appeal last week, they won’t be on the field tonight in the Championship Game.

I don’t believe that death is the only consequence. Steroids are unhealthy, and using them is considered cheating. However, when steroid use is viewed against the backdrop of sudden cardiac arrest and death in sport, it really makes me wonder about our priorities.

The NCAA set forth its policy on steroid use in the NCAA Drug Testing Program. The policy identifies drugs that are “potentially harmful to the health and safety of the student-athlete.” The rationale for the policy seems to reflect a “dedication to the ideal of fair and equitable intercollegiate competition at their championships and postseason bowl games.

So, we’ve accepted the reality that our student athletes can be randomly tested for drugs during the season. Before the “big” game, that testing should be mandatory. We have also accepted that these tests are reliable enough to warrant suspension from “big” games, even if there’s a chance we’re wrong. In the case of the Clemson players, there are thirty-six supplements that contain the banned substance of ostarine. This is a very different approach than we’re taking to sudden cardiac arrest and death.

Four years ago, Brian Hainline, the Chief Medical Officer of the NCAA, suggested that all high risk athletes, namely basketball and football players, be required to undergo a cardiac exam before taking the field or court. Research supports this position and shows that heart screenings are far more effective at detecting heart conditions in NCAA athletes.

The backlash was brutal and the idea was quickly scrapped.

All or nothing shouldn’t be the only choice when setting policy for the health and safety of student athletes. It’s not for steroids.

Last year, the news media reported the deaths of nine student athletes from suspected sudden cardiac arrest. Yet, no student athlete was randomly tested for heart conditions this season, and none of the players from Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Clemson and Alabama were required to get a heart screening before the BCS Championship Playoffs. Some schools do provide heart screenings for their student athletes. This year, Penn State football discovered career-ending conditions in two of its players.

If steroids pose a significant health risk for our student athletes, I welcome testing. If steroid use threatens the integrity of sport, let’s prevent and punish its use. But, is this about health or cheating? If it’s about health, let’s apply the same or stricter standards to testing for heart conditions. I think that we can all agree that losing a game because of cheating sucks, but losing a player is tragic.