The bathroom was uncomfortable for two.
Natalie Abel lifted her shirt and revealed her bare stomach to the University Health Center nurse to ensure she didn’t have tubes that would enable her to cheat the system.
She pulled her pants down below her knees and urinated in the small, plastic cup with her name on the label.
She was drowsy. It was 6:30 a.m., and her team’s athletic trainer had advised against drinking coffee that morning.
Abel — a senior volleyball player — could have failed her student-athlete drug test because of excess caffeine, as can any other student-athlete.
There are two categories of drug testing: those that check for street drugs and those that check for performance-enhancing substances.
Within the latter category, false positives like excessive caffeine, some over-the-counter drugs such as Sudafed and Midol and certain vitaminwaters flavors can also show up.
“If I were to wake up that morning and [drink a lot of coffee], that would make me fail a drug test, and I might lose my scholarship,” Abel said. “That’s absurd.”
About four cups of coffee can push a student-athlete to fail a drug test, and two vitaminwater flavors are banned because of excess caffeine. Sudafed tests positive for banned ephedrine, which has been ruled to give student-athletes an unfair advantage. Midol is a diuretic, which can be used as a masking agent.
“I think the tests are pretty fair, although it’s a little ridiculous to fail a drug test due to a sports drink,” said junior non-athlete Jessica Hing. “The athletes do need to be tested … but the tests should indicate why an athlete may or may not have passed a test.”
Non-prescribed Adderall and Ritalin, which treat ADHD, are among the most frequently seen banned substances, according to Tom Kuster, assistant athletic director of sports medicine. Exceptions for prescribed medication can be made, provided there’s been formal testing and sufficient documentation.
Each university team holds a meeting in August with a member of the sports medicine department to go over drug-testing policies. The staff urges student-athletes to get any supplements or medicine from the department to ensure compliance.
“Any of the medications that they get, hopefully they’re getting from our department,” Kuster said. “But we know that sometimes they’re just going to go to CVS on their own and buy whatever they want, not really thinking about it. But before they take anything, if they buy it themselves, we ask them to come check in and get it checked out by us.”
According to Kuster, no one at JMU has been suspended for failing a drug test for a milder substance, such as caffeine or decongestants. But if it were to happen, the punishment would be the same for harsher substances.
That being said, JMU tends to test more often for street drugs. All JMU student-athletes are subject to year-round drug testing, done either by the NCAA or the university.
JMU’s program is based more on education than punishment. In contrast, the NCAA’s program imposes harsher penalties immediately, though this testing is more rare. Representatives roam from school to school throughout the country, posing only the possibility of landing at JMU. The last known JMU athlete to fail an NCAA drug test was in 2009, when then-defensive lineman J.D. Skolnitsky failed an NCAA-mandated test and declared ineligible for the remainder of the season. He also had to fill out paperwork making him ineligible for the NFL draft.
Although NCAA appearances are rare, the testing procedure is the same. The health center sends the sample to the National Center for Drug-Free Sport in Kansas City.
“After you’ve given your sample, no news is good news,” Abel said. “They don’t email you and tell you that you passed. They only email you if there’s a problem.”
Junior soccer player Paul Wyatt firmly supports the drug-testing policy.
“When you become an athlete,m you relinquish any right that you may have had to partake in a behavior that will tarnish the reputation of a program, school or any other person,” Wyatt said.
“You cannot be considered an athlete if you really believe that taking drugs is necessary in college. It is irresponsible and disrespectful to those who recruited you, coach you, depend on you, trust you and pay for you to get through college. It not only breaks down trust within a team but also has a direct effect on performance.”
Sizing up: how JMU compares to other universities’ drug-testing programs
The NCAA doesn’t require universities to have their own drug-screening programs.
“Some schools do their own drug testing like we do. Other schools don’t,” Kuster said. “And there’s all different kinds of reasons why some do and some don’t. Financially, it’s an expense … Other schools may not want to know. So it’s a philosophy type of thing.”
JMU began its own drug-screening program in 2003.
“I think that if other schools aren’t doing it, but we are, that makes us look better,” said junior Ben Buccola, non-athlete and JMU sports fan. “It says that we put that as something we care about — that it’s important to us.”
Junior cross-country runner Katie Gorman stresses the favorable facets of the JMU drug-testing program.
“JMU has a better approach, because it focuses on lifestyle changes instead of punishment,” Gorman said. “It promotes the health perspective and might change athletes’ perspective on drug use in general, inside and outside of training.”
Although there are no standards or requirements for university drug-screening implemented by the NCAA or the Colonial Athletic Association, JMU’s drug-screening program is typical in comparison to its conference counterparts.
George Mason’s drug-testing program is similar to JMU’s, diverging mainly by suspending student-athletes for only 20 percent of the season as opposed to JMU’s 50.
Similarly, University of Richmond’s drug-screening program involves an educational seminar after the first offense and punishments in form of suspension in any subsequent positive tests. At the University of Alabama, a bigger school in the Southeastern Conference, the consequences are slightly more lenient than JMU’s, having only a one-year suspension after a third positive.
Contact Emmie Cleveland at email@example.com.