What's the rush?

UO's random drug-testing decision may backfire without being effective

The University of Oregon has decided to begin random drug testing of student-athletes before a scheduled campus hearing next month — and before the administration consults with the University Senate, as required by the university's constitution and other campus policies.

It's an unwise decision for a number of reasons, foremost of which is the opposition such a precipitous move may provoke among students and faculty. The decision by UO officials to bypass established university procedures and put in place a random testing program also raises the question of whether their primary aim is promoting student-athletes' health and well-being — or protecting the reputation of the university and its high-flying athletic program.

UO officials were taken aback by an ESPN report last April that detailed a culture of pot-smoking among Oregon football players. That report came on the heels of a nationally publicized 2011 incident in which UO football player Cliff Harris told an Oregon State Police trooper during a traffic stop that he and others had smoked pot, after the trooper asked about the smell. Harris' response — "We smoked it all" — became a national punch-line, and a source of embarrassment to UO officials.

There is no question that the UO has the right to conduct random drug testing under state and federal law. Any doubts about the authority of school officials to require athletes to submit to drug testing as a prerequisite to participation in sports were resolved by a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving the Vernonia School District in Oregon.

But the university's rush to put random drug testing into place ignores serious questions about the effectiveness of such programs. As previously noted in this space, a study by researchers at Oregon Health & Science University last year found that a clinical trial of random drug and alcohol testing in schools made little or no difference in athletes' drug and alcohol usage.

Interestingly, many athletes at schools with random testing programs perceived their school authorities as being less opposed to drug use, perhaps partly because testing programs became a substitute for other efforts to combat substance abuse.

There are other concerns about random testing, including the possibility that some athletes may shun marijuana, a drug that has a high probability of showing up in drug tests for an extended period of time after usage, and opt for other more harmful drugs that metabolize more quickly and are not as easily detected.

It's possible that UO officials have worked their way through these and other difficult issues. It's even possible that they have reached out to experts at OHSU and elsewhere to ensure that the UO has crafted the most effective, state-of-the-art random testing program possible.

But there's no way of knowing whether that's the case, because university officials chose to impose a new random testing program without consulting faculty, students or the UO Senate.

University officials justify their decision by saying participating in collegiate sports while on illegal drugs creates a "serious risk" of injury. That's probably true. But that risk didn't suddenly arise this past week — it's been present for as long as student-athletes have been taking illegal drugs.

UO officials had another possible course of action, one they could still take. They could put the new random testing program on hold and more rigorously apply the UO's current policy of testing with cause, which responds to signs of drug abuse among athletes with counseling, followed by a series of sanctions.

That would allow the UO to take a more thoughtful, methodical — and potentially more effective — approach to protecting student-athletes from illicit drugs.

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