COMMENTARY: A system out of whack

IT REMAINS A CURIOUS decision to say the least, the one the NCAA meted out against Tavita Thompson last October. The OSU offensive tackle will sit the first seven games this year, and an entire year all told. It begs a question or ten -- there's the curious and inconsistent practices by the NCAA, and widely disparate penalties, for starters.

Tavita Thompson, according to reports by several media outlets, was banned for one calendar year last October for using diet pills that contained an NCAA banned substance.


Many observers thought he would see his penalty reduced substantially on appeal -- it wasn't as if he was out there buying quantities of a specific performance enhancer on the internet at 2 a.m. No, the Beaver lineman had used a legal, over-the-counter product that -- he didn't know -- contained an NCAA banned substance. It's a product that can be purchased at any Wal-Mart.

The NCAA tagged him with a 1-year suspension and flatly denied his subsequent appeal. The first of many head-scratchers surrounding this incident concerns the area of intent.

If a student-athlete unknowingly uses a product that contains a banned substance, if he's just trying to diet, is that on par with someone deliberately using steroids? Should the former really lose an entire year of playing time and eligibility just like the steroid user? According to the NCAA, the answers to both questions are, "Yes."

WELL LET'S LOOK at precedent. Football players at Oklahoma, it was reported in June of 2007, were given two nutritional supplements banned by the NCAA before the school's compliance department detected the error and halted the practice. No Oklahoma player was suspended. And they shouldn't have been -- it was an honest mistake. Just like Thompson's.

Twelve Northwestern football players were found in 2001 to have taken NCAA-banned supplements before a 2001 preseason drill at which teammate Rashidi Wheeler collapsed and died. The NCAA suspended not a single one of the dozen. So why has Thompson lost an entire year?

ANOTHER LITTLE NUGGET to consider -- a player in the WAC failed a drug test three years ago for performance-enhancing drugs. He was not suspended for a year like Thompson. He was not suspended for even a single game and continued to play. How could this be? Because that individual's test, unlike Thompson's, was not administered by the NCAA.

When a university or conference conducts a test and a player tests positive, the punishment is startlingly different than the NCAA's. The punishment for a first offense, depending on school and/or conference, can be as little as having notice sent home and counseling set up. And no missed playing time.

So Thompson mistakenly takes a diet supplement that contains a banned substance and he loses an entire year. Other players test positive for the same exact thing, or worse, and he gets a note sent home to mommy and daddy. Something seems amiss here..

Meanwhile, a Salt Lake Tribune investigation published last fall found "vast inconsistencies, curious practices and uncertain accountability in the way the nation's major schools at the top-tier Division I-A level administer their (testing) programs."

Further, the report concluded, the number of athletes subjected to tests, the banned substances for which they are tested, the quality of testing and the consequences of failed tests varied significantly depending on the sport, as well as the schools, conferences and states in which they play.

About 4 percent of athletes can ever expect to be tested according to a report -- most college athletes will go their entire careers without ever being tested for performance-enhancing drugs. Charles Yesalis, professor emeritus at Penn State, is an an author of books on performance-enhancing drugs and has testified on the subject before Congress on a number of occasions. He says the college testing system is disastrously flawed.

AND WHILE YOU'RE THINKING about that, think about this. Consider some other NCAA penalties, suspensions and appeals, and then compare them to a player being suspended an entire year for taking a diet supplement.

Dusty Dvoracek, a star defensive tackle, was kicked off the Oklahoma team in September of '04 after a brawl in a Norman bar. It was the latest in a number of violent incidents involving the Sooner according to media reports, with coach Bob Stoops calling it "a pattern of behavior."

Dvoracek went to anger-management and alcohol-related counseling. A few months later, Oklahoma was convinced he'd changed his ways and applied for a medical hardship waiver, seeking a fifth year and for him to return to the team. The Big 12 conference denied it. The NCAA tripped all over themselves to grant his extra year and in record time -- three days after the Big 12 decision.

So which is more egregious -- several violent incidents or a legal diet supplement. The NCAA thinks it's the diet supplement. Well, how about gambling?

Scott Milanovich, a starting quarterback at Maryland back in the '90s, was suspended for eight games initially after he was found to be betting on college sports events -- less than was Thompson. But he appealed, and the Eligibility Committee reduced it to four games.

Well hell, that sounds about right -- four games for gambling. And a year for Dexatrim.

To quote the great Vince Lombardi, What the hell is going on here?

Let's talk cold, hard cash while we're at it. The NCAA reinstatement staff restored the eligibility of then USC wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett after he was found to have received benefits totaling $18,001.

He received no game suspension. Although the rules-breaking benefit received was $18,001, the NCAA, inexplicably, asked him to only pay back $5,352 to a charity of his choosing. I wonder if he also got a note sent home to his mom. That would have really showed him.

THOMPSON HAD A great spring session, and the senior would likely be the opening day starter against Stanford at one of the tackle spots were it not for the suspension.

According to a 2001 survey conducted by the NCAA, nearly 60 percent of college student-athletes said they used nutritional supplements that might have contained a banned substance. Sixty percent. But if any ever are selected, and test positive, it would behoove them to be tested by their university or conference, that's for sure.

Either that, or hope it's a different type of act altogether... like an illegal benefit totaling thousands of dollars. Or multiple assault charges. Or gambling.

Anything, anything except for a diet supplement. Because hey, that's really bad.

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