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Failing NCAA drug tests: who’s to blame?


When people think about college athletes testing positive for use of banned substances everyone thinks about performance-enhancing drugs or illegal substances such as cocaine or methamphetamines.   The fact is, however, that the NCAA has a long list of banned substances that include things no one would consider as being a problem.

The NCAA publishes their “Banned Drug List” on their website. This list includes both legal and illegal “drugs” (or what the NCAA considers “drugs”). They specifically state that “There is no complete list of banned drug examples!!” and to “Check with your athletics department staff before you consume any medication or supplement.”

The following list can be found on the NCAA website:

a. Stimulants*
     *Caffeine if concentrations in urine exceed 15 micrograms/ml [which is approximately equivalent to consuming 
        500 mg within an hour prior to testing

b. Anabolic Agents
c. Alcohol and Beta Blockers (banned for rifle only)
d. Diuretics and Other Masking Agents
e. Street Drugs
f. Peptide Hormones and Analogues
g. Anti-estrogens
h. Beta-2 Agonists

Note:  Any substance chemically related to these classes is also banned.

Most college athletes know if they are taking illegal drugs like steroids (anabolic agents) but often don’t consider nutritional supplements illegal “drugs”…But t are nutritional supplements illegal? Are they even drugs? “The FD&C Act defines drugs, in part, by their intended use, as “articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease” and “articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals” FD&C Act, sec. 201(g)(1).”

So YES, a nutritional supplement can be a drug, alcohol is a “drug” in the eyes of the NCAA! In fact, if you consume enough caffeine, you are also violating the NCAA “drug” rules. However, the FDA also classifies several nutritional supplements as “foods” and not “drugs”. Sounds confusing; doesn’t it?

Here’s where the story gets interesting. Recently, a Grand Valley State University football player was recently suspended for five games following a failed drug test. His urine contained a recently banned stimulant methylhexaneamine, which was in a pre-exercise supplement (Jack3d) he was regularly consuming.

Methylhexaneamine can be found in a host of products and is listed by several names. A detailed list of products and other trade names can be found here: http://drugfreesportrec.blogspot.com/2011/03/methylhexaneamine-1-3-dimethylamylamine.html. Methylhexaneamine has been used as a nasal decongestant for decades and is commonly referred to as garanium oil extract in supplements. As a stimulant, methylhexaneamine influences norepinephrine, thus, increasing heart rate and constricting blood vessels, among other things. Caffeine, also a stimulant, works through a different mechanism in the body, making the stacking of methylhexaneamine and caffeine a recipe for synergistic stimulation in the eyes of some.

However, unlike caffeine, the consumption of methylhexaneamine has been banned entirely by the NCAA, which brings us back to our story about the GVSU football player’s suspension. The ban of methylhexaneamine by the NCAA was reported sometime last September (2010). However, the head athletic trainer at GVSU stated that he was never notified of this change and was directed to a blog when asked where these changes were posted.

It would appear that the NCAA is making it difficult for athletic departments to know what nutrition supplements and foods are considered “drugs”. Specifically, the NCAA reports on their website that athletes should “Check with your athletics department staff before you consume any medication or supplement”, yet apparently they do not notify athletic departments when changes are made.

Even more confusing, athletes who had been tested for drugs prior to September 2010 who were taking methylhexaneamine passed drug screens. So who is to blame for this athlete’s suspension? The athlete? The head trainer? The NCAA? I say they are ALL to blame.

The NCAA needs to be more proactive about notifying athletic departments about changes in their drug policies at all levels (Divisions I, II, and III), athletic departments need to educate their athletes about NCAA drug policies, and athletes need to take responsibility for whatever they consume.

What concerns me is that the head athletic trainer stated that “It was a type of product that I had questions about,” yet he allowed his players to continue taking the product containing the stimulant methylhexaneamine. From an athletic trainer’s standpoint, wouldn’t it be ideal to tell your athletes to avoid “all” stimulants, even caffeine, even if someone taking the same supplement has passed a drug test in the past? Also, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) publishes a new prohibited list EVERY YEAR. The 2011 list includes methylhexaneamine.

Shouldn’t athletic trainers or athletic departments review the changes in this list from year to year? It seems naïve or indolent to blame the NCAA for “not knowing” what is considered a banned substance. Still, GVSU’s head trainer stated that “I feel like I did what I was told to do”. So whose responsibility is it to read the updated prohibited substance list each year? Not the NCAA!

Does the punishment fit the crime? Five games for consuming a stimulant that was recently added to the drug screening test? Is that appropriate? Would someone get a FIVE game suspension if they had 15.1 micrograms/ml of caffeine in their urine, 0.1 more than the limit? Recently, Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel was suspended for the same about of time (5 games) for withholding information about his athletes selling memorabilia items. Are these violations on the same level? I don’t think so. Perhaps the NCAA is sending a message to athletic departments.

Why is it so hard for the NCAA to accept the fact that “they screwed up” and failed to notify athletic departments when they changed their drug test criteria. Instead, they are forcing a senior starting linebacker to sit out five games. Couldn’t the NCAA take responsibility and forgive athletes for failed drug tests because of methylhexaneamine? Sure, but that’s not what the NCAA does, and why should they? The information is out there if you look. It is not the NCAA’s position to spoon-feed athletic departments every change made in their policies, but it would help out if they told them where to look.

The main lesson to be learned from this story is that ALL items on the NCAA banned drug list should be avoided. GVSU has recently done this; they have banned the use of ALL supplements. The scary thing is that even protein powders, which are considered a food supplement, can have traces of illegal substances. However, there is a website athletes can visit to identify if a supplement is tested for banned substances.

Informed Choice is a “quality assurance program for sports nutrition products”, supplement companies pay Informed Choice to test their products to make sure they are safe to consume by athletes, and YES, they test for methylhexaneamine among other compounds prohibited by WADA. For example, Eight Ball Nutrition tests all their products, so an athlete can be sure they are getting safe supplements if they purchase this brand, or any other brand with the Informed Choice logo.

My advice for athletic departments is to either ban all supplements or provide athletes with a list of approved supplements tested by Informed Choice or other quality assurance testing centers, and update this list yearly. Blaming the NCAA is the easy way out. Athletes and trainers need to take responsibility; they have no one to blame but themselves, the information is within reach.

Jordan Moon, PhD, CPS, CSCS*D, HFS
Dr. Moon is the Department Head of Sports Health and Fitness at the United States Sports Academy. He has trained athletes at all levels including professionals in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League, as well as college athletes and teams in addition to youth and fitness clients.


  1.   Thank
    you for the link, this site provides valuable information on this topic, especially
    about the DSHEA. http://www.drugfreesport.com appears to be a third party organization
    to assist athletes, coaches, and trainers, test athletes for drug use, educate
    athletes, create drug policies, and help identify  illegal substances. HOWEVER, the Resource
    Exchange Center (REC) is NOT “the only authoritative resource for questions
    related to whether listed ingredients on nutritional supplement product labels
    or in medications contain NCAA banned substances”.

    the REC may provide this information, IT IS FOR A PRICE. Coaches, trainers, and
    athletes can get this information FOR FREE through the sources outlined in the
    article above. However, drugfreesport.com does appear to assist in the
    prevention of illegal drug use and appears to have a good educational program.
    Yet, they are taking the most conservative approach and charging you:

    “The list of ingredients and claims made by a manufacturer
    are not necessarily backed up by reliable, scientific research.  The REC DOES NOT recommend the use
    of any dietary supplement…”

    If athletes are not getting enough protein in their diet due to
    eating habits and lifestyle, they should be consuming a protein powder supplement,
    among other healthy supplements. SOME DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS ARE BACKED BY CLAIMS
    AND ARE LEGAL AND HEALTHY FOR ATHLETES TO TAKE. Athletes need to understand their
    nutritional needs, suggesting all athletes can get “everything through their
    diet”, is naïve, we know not all athletes, especially college athletes, eat a
    balanced diet including all their nutritional needs.  

    To be safe, a school can ban “all supplements” or they can
    educate the athletes about what their body needs and provide tested legal
    products or give the athletes a list of tested and safe products for them to

    History suggests that college athletes do not always follow the
    rules, so banning all supplements may not be the best way to address/prevent
    drug use in athletes. Perhaps a more logical approach would be to completely educate
    them while providing information about safe and proven dietary supplements?


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