Substance abuse in athletics: How MTSU steers clear of drugs


Story by Tyler Lamb / Sports Editor and Rusty Ellis / Assistant Sports Editor

While the Middle Tennessee Blue Raider football team is off to its best start since 2001, the school continues to do better than other athletic departments in one important off-the-field statistic. Namely, the department has a clean history with minimal incidents regarding substance abuse.

At MTSU, Director of Sports Medicine, Assistant Athletic Director and Drug Prevention Coordinator, Drew Shea has the task of overseeing the drug testing for the athletic department. The drug he sees as most prevalent in sports is marijuana. For many people, passing tests for drugs is relatively easy, but athletes often have quite a hard time of it.

“Marijuana is the number one thing we see,” Shea said. “That’s just a mainstream drug… It’s legal in many states, but not in Tennessee.” He goes on to say that even in states where marijuana is legal, it is still a banned substance in the NCAA. The MTSU athletic department also tests for cocaine, opiates and recreational drugs such as Rohypnol, the date-rape drug.

Athletes can be tested any time, any day. You may be wondering how a saliva drugs test is carried out. Fortunately, Test Country have more information on this. Just ask former University of Tennessee defensive lineman, Danny O’Brien. On Oct. 8, O’Brien went to make a routine tackle in a game against Texas A&M. On the play, O’Brien took a direct hit to the helmet and had to be carted off the field and transported directly to the hospital.

O’Brien’s time in Knoxville, while productive on the field, was mired by multiple off-field issues related to illegal alcohol consumption and marijuana use. O’Brien also tested positive in a drug test in 2015, leading to a suspension for UT’s game against Oklahoma. Before that, O’Brien was arrested for criminal impersonation, underage alcohol consumption and resisting arrest in 2014.

Each school has its own disciplinary methods, and after he had been examined by the hospital staff in College Station, Texas, the University of Tennessee Athletic Department decided it was time for the team and O’Brien to part ways. Two days later, he was dismissed from the team. Just like that, his career was over, leaving Volunteer fans stunned, but not surprised.

UT released this press release on O’Brien’s dismissal:

“Defensive lineman Danny O’Brien has been dismissed from the Tennessee football team for violation of team rules. This news is unrelated to the injury he suffered against Texas A&M. However, should he require any additional care, it will be provided by the University of Tennessee.”

Whatever was found in his system in the hospital, O’Brien held himself accountable and relayed a message to his fans on Twitter on October 10.

“I take full responsibility. I’m grateful for my teammates, coaches, and Vol nation. It has been an honor to help bring this program back.”

Three days later, UT insider and WNML’s Jimmy Hyams confirmed on Twitter that a third failed drug test led to O’Brien’s dismissal.

“UT DT Danny O’Brien was dismissed after failing another drug test, according to 2 sources. He had 2 previous drug-related suspensions.”

While marijuana is the primary banned substance that Shea encounters, there are rare cases where performance-enhancing drugs are discovered in college athletes who believe they can beat the system. Just last year, University of Florida quarterback Will Grier was suspended for taking a supplement that contained the banned substance Ligandrol. The illegal drug, which is popular with bodybuilders, is an alternative to steroids. With just a 10mg dose per day, Ligandrol can boost muscle mass by 10-15 pounds in a month. Grier said that he took the over-the-counter supplement, but failed to check with the medical staff to make sure it was okay.

While schools have their own drug policies, the NCAA administers two mandatory drug tests every year. A day in advance, they will send a roster of 40 random names to the school. In Grier’s case, his name was on the list, and the substance didn’t have enough time to clear his system, resulting in his suspension from NCAA eligibility for one calendar year.

When an athlete signs to play for MTSU, they agree to drug testing at any time throughout the year. If someone refuses to be drug-tested, they have to take it up with the athletic director, according to Shea.

“I have never had a kid say that they won’t drug test,” Shea said.

In recent history, MTSU hasn’t had to deal with repetitive or substantial incidents. While they have had to dismiss players due to team policy violations, they have never turned into a national story. The other major universities in Tennessee can’t make such a claim.

In 2008, the University of Memphis backup point guard Andre Allen was suspended for failing an NCAA-mandated drug test. To make matters worse, the contests he was suspended for were Memphis’ two Final Four games against UCLA and Kansas. While he may not have made a huge difference in the stat sheet, Allen’s suspension forced then-coach John Calipari to play star point guard Derrick Rose for 82 minutes out of a possible 85 minutes over those two games. This hurt Memphis as they fell in overtime to Kansas in the National Championship.

In July 2016, former University of Vanderbilt players Corey Batey and Brandon Vandenburg were both found guilty of different counts of aggravated rape charges. Following a night of drinking, Vandenburg brought an unconscious woman to his dormitory, where the woman was raped.

Testimony showed Batey’s blood-alcohol content was believed to be anywhere from .23 to .41. The legal threshold for intoxication in Tennessee is .08. Vandenburg, was considered the leader in the gang rape trial that still hasn’t reached its conclusion. Batey received 15 years. Vandeburg was also found guilty and will be sentenced on Nov. 4. Two other defendants still remain to go on trial.

MTSU has only had one player dismissed from any of its teams in recent years due to drugs, making a splash in local news only. On February 27, 2015, senior forward Cheyenne Parker was dismissed from the Lady Raider basketball team for a marijuana-related incident, she revealed one week later in an interview with MTSU Sidelines. Parker told Sidelines that she came from a university in North Carolina where smoking cannabis was almost routine.

“At High Point [University], it had become a norm,” Parker said in the March 6, 2015, interview.I’m going to keep it completely honest, it was something that I did, and it wasn’t a big deal at High Point. And so, when I came here, it was just a complete different outlook on the subject of marijuana.”

MTSU athletes face a three-strike policy for illegal substance use. The first doesn’t result in a suspension, but the offender is required to do 10 hours of community service, seek counseling and meet with the coach, athletic director and the athlete’s family.

“The first time you test positive, you’re on every drug test,” Shea said. “We will test you anytime. You don’t know when it’s coming, and you don’t want to get strike two.”

Strike two results in a suspension that is equal to 15 percent of the total games on the schedule as well as being immediately suspended from all activities for a week. In addition, the player is required to do 20 more hours of community service on top of their previous 10 hours. This also results in a loss of trust between the player and their coach, team and family.

When a player reaches strike three, they are dismissed from the program.

“Strike three, see you later,” Shea says. “You’re done.”

In very rare cases, there is a clause in student-athlete handbooks that states anyone who tests positive for the third time can appeal at the written request of head coach detailing the reasons for their appeal. At MTSU, if this is successful per Athletic Director Chris Massaro, the athlete is reinstated with the condition that they will be routinely drug-tested during an eight week period. If for any reason there is the presence of a banned substance after this period, the athlete is deemed permanently ineligible, no questions asked. Because cases are so few and far between, this is a clause that has rarely been invoked.

While MTSU has a three-strike penalty, the standards change from school to school. Some universities have a two-strike policy, while some are more relaxed and give five strikes. Occasionally, some are even more lenient to the point that they don’t record any drug tests.

The system in place at MTSU holds players accountable, starting when coaches walk into high schools to recruit good character prospects, as MTSU has done over Massaro’s tenure. At any university, it starts with the athletic director, trickling down to the head coach and their specific philosophy with how they want to run their program.

“I think any drug that is illegal should not be used period, whether you’re in athletics or non-athletics,” Football Coach Rick Stockstill said. “I’m against illegal drug use by anybody.”

Stockstill constantly informs his team to always bring any substance they purchase to the strength coach Jason Spray and Shea so they can confirm that it’s clean.

“In 12 years, I have had one case,” Shea said. “He bought a substance at GNC. A lot of these kids are told they have to get bigger and that they aren’t going to play unless they put on 20 pounds. It happens all over the country.”

The player, who remains unnamed, bought the substance, figuring it was approved by the NCAA. When he was evaluated later, it showed up on the test, shocking the athletic department.

Only six games into the football season, MTSU has already been tested once by the NCAA. No player was found using banned substances.

“I talk to them all the time about street drugs,” Stockstill said. “We try to do as good a job as we can to educate our guys.”
Coach Stockstill knows that illegal drug use can happen to anyone, so he makes sure his guys understand the message to the core.

“I hate to even talk about that, because it can happen to anybody, especially in football when you’ve got 125 guys out here and you’re not with them 24/7,” Stockstill said of his team. “It means our guys are listening. They’re hearing our message, but they’re also listening and understanding the message.”

This story originally ran in MTSU Sidelines’ October 2016 print edition. For more information, contact Editor-in-Chief Sarah Grace Taylor or editor@mtsusidelines.com

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