In December 2017, James, a former student-athlete at Purdue, failed a university-administered drug test for the second time. Test results showed he had tested positive for marijuana.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” said James, who did not want his real name published because of possible repercussions. “It had been a while since I last smoked, so I thought it wasn’t going to show up.”
James’ coach at the time contacted him several weeks after the test was administered to talk about the results.
“At the time, I just knew there were going to be consequences,” he said. “What they didn’t tell me was that I wasn’t going to be a part of the team for the rest of the season.”
For student-athletes, being drug tested isn’t something new. Nearly every other week, athletes are randomly tested for various banned substances by the NCAA, the Big Ten Conference and by their respective universities.
Student-athletes who have been chosen for testing are notified only 12 hours before testing begins, which usually occurs at 6 a.m. If you don’t show up, it counts as a positive, athletes say. If you can’t urinate in the cup, you can’t leave. If your urine is too diluted, you have to stay until you provide an appropriate sample.
For some, the process is relatively quick, lasting about 10 minutes. But a select few can be forced to stay for hours.
James doesn’t remember much of that day, just that he got the news after his morning lift.
“I was scared,” he said. “I felt like I made a couple mistakes, but the things I had done good kind of outweighed my mistakes, and I felt mad at myself as well.”
Later that night, James returned to his apartment that he shared with three of his teammates. When he saw the look on their faces, he knew the news had reached them.
“I kind of felt embarrassed and ashamed,” he recalls.
To James, smoking was his way out. It was his way of getting away from the world when he needed to get a grip on his sanity.
James had been weighed down with problems unrelated to college or athletics for the past year, he said. A friend had died earlier that year from a car wreck. He received the news that his uncle had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Not long after, he had to say goodbye to another friend who was shot and killed.
“I was never addicted,” he said. “I was just going through a lot.”
When he first tested positive, he was sent to meet with a counselor a set number of times and faced punishment from his coach.
The second positive test was a different story.
James was suspended from all team activities for the rest of the year. That meant that until May 2017, he wasn’t allowed to lift with the team, sit in on any meetings or even watch practices from the sidelines.
Doug Boersma, an associate athletics director for sports medicine at Purdue, oversees medical treatment, rehabilitation and testing of all 18 collegiate sports. If you’re a student-athlete who has gotten into any sort of trouble related to sports medicine policy violations, the chances are you’ll find yourself sitting in his office, just as James did.
“Here we like to say that we approach it very seriously from an educational perspective. If you get caught once, you have mandatory counseling and punishment penalties sanctioned by the coaches,” Boersma said. “But if you test positive again, we have to follow policy.”
If a student-athlete tests positive more than once, the coaching staff is allowed to add on additional punishment set on their own terms.
The policy that Boersma was referring to is the Purdue Athletics Drug Testing Policy. Positive tests are received by the director of sports medicine, who will in turn notify the athletics director as well as the student-athlete. The policy states that Purdue Athletics reserves the right to add suspension to any practice or competition.
Head coaches may choose to establish sanctions that are more stringent on top of those placed based on the drug testing policy.
There’s no place to hide, so to speak. A violation of the policy may include and is not limited to “failing to sign a consent form, or any other required form; no-shows for drug tests; refusals to participate in drug tests; and failure to attend counseling and treatment to which the student-athlete may be referred.”
But the NCAA does not regularly test student-athletes for marijuana throughout the academic year. Instead, the NCAA advises individual universities to conduct their own tests within the semester.
Typically, organizations like the NCAA or the Big Ten will randomly test student-athletes for marijuana only during Big Ten championships or NCAA tournaments.
To this date, the NCAA and the Big Ten have not responded to requests for statistics pertaining to the overall number of student-athletes who have been determined to be using drugs during the school year.
“I’m not exactly sure why they don’t test for it at the same level with other substances, especially since it is a drug that cannot be waived for medical exceptions,” Boersma said. Drugs that fall into the “illicit” category cannot be waived under any circumstance, even while the student-athlete is a redshirt for the season.
But Boersma said Purdue student-athletes have very low statistics when it comes to marijuana and overall drug use. Purdue declined to provide statistics to support the claim.
Purdue does not turn over positive test results to the police, officials said.
Penalties like suspension are thoughts that often cross a student-athlete’s mind when they make day-to-day decisions about recreational drug use.
Every four years, the NCAA conducts its Student-Athlete Substance Use Survey to get an insight into the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco by student-athletes through self-reports. Based on the responses of about 23,000 student-athletes accounting for 60% of schools from all three divisions, the most recent survey in 2017 found that 24.7% of student-athletes report having used marijuana. That compares to 33% of the non-athlete population that responded to the 2017 Core Institute Alcohol Survey.
Marijuana was the second most commonly used substance within the student-athlete population after alcohol, at 77.1%.
However, while alcohol use results have dropped consistently in the surveys, marijuana use was up, from 22.6% in 2009. That was the largest increase in drug use among all illicit drugs.
Student-athletes reported they often use marijuana for social reasons (77%) and pain management (19%).
James and his high school peers were no stranger to smoking marijuana. But coming to college and playing a collegiate sport was a different story.
“Back home it’s not a big deal. Everyone I knew growing up smoked pot,” he said. “But I knew there were rules and I chose to break them.”
James admits that his 19-year-old self didn’t make the best decision. But it irritates him when he hears others say things like, “Student-athletes won’t get in trouble because their university needs them to compete,” or, “It’ll just go away.”
“They don’t see that side of it. When I got into trouble, there was no news coverage,” he said. “But when I got home, everyone knew. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best of the professionals or just a hometown hero, if you get into some kind of trouble, it always matters.”
Five months after the incident, James left Purdue. He considers himself lucky to have been able to transfer.
“I was just really grateful to have gotten a second chance under college money. My coach was upfront, told me that if I tested positive again, I was out,” he said. “But I had learned my lesson, and I was just grateful for a second chance.”
Since his second positive test at Purdue, James said he has been clean from any drug use.
“You realize what your priorities are and you stick to them,” he said, “and I haven’t gotten in trouble since.”