The need for vigilance in ensuring drug-free college championships was brought into shockingly sharp focus this past week. In Sports Illustrated's blockbuster cover story, Gary McLain, the playmaking guard on Villanova's 1985 basketball team, revealed that he had taken cocaine only days before the Wildcats won the national title.
Under the testing procedures now in place, McLain would have faced almost certain detection and banishment from the tournament. And without his outstanding contributions, it's doubtful that Villanova could have pulled off its historic upset of top-ranked Georgetown. But that game is in the record books now, of course, and clearly the result will stand, even if soiled by this recent disclosure.
Before the current tournament began, however, the National Collegiate Athletic Association expressed its determination to avert such situations in the future by eliminating drugs from the final rounds.
``Our first goal is to have a clean Final Four, and our second goal is to have a clean regional,'' said John Toner, athletics director at the University of Connecticut and chairman of the NCAA committee on drug testing.
The moment of truth arrives this week as test results are privately shared with the winners of the tournament's first-round games. Depending on the outcome, any of the 16 schools still alive could lose the services of a key player.
Athletes found to have used drugs will be told quietly that they are ineligible to continue - an awkward situation bound to arouse public suspicions. The NCAA will never openly identify drug users, but the circumstantial evidence, namely sudden removal from the roster, is fairly easy to interpret. The offending athlete must sit out at least 90 days, and is barred from postseason play the following academic year if subsequent tests prove positive.
The schools that make up the NCAA membership voted for drug testing, begun last fall at the cross-country running championships. The activity has recently been challenged by a member of Stanford's diving team, who claimed the tests were an invasion of her privacy under California law in a case that appears to be headed to trial court. This individual action has not halted the testing program, which is conducted with the written consent of the athletes.
While supportive of testing generally, some basketball coaches have been less than enthusiastic with the actual execution, which has occupied some basketball players long after late-night games and defused the euphoria of victory for others.
Not all testing is conducted right after games, but exit testing does play an important role in legitimizing competitive results. It is used at the Olympics, and the NCAA reserves the right to perform tests after the March 30 basketball final.
There's only one catch. Under the present procedure, a player who tests positive after the championship game might lose whatever eligibility he has left, but the team wouldn't be stripped of its title.
``This is a real concern to our committee,'' Toner conceded. ``The individual would have to sacrifice any individual award gained at that team championship, which may or may not be very significant, but there is no institutional or team penalty. However, at our next NCAA convention [next January] our membership is going to wrestle with that question.''
Actually the existing regulations state that a team found playing an ineligible athlete must sacrifice both its place in the championship tournament and any material award gained through participation. The NCAA decided this might be a little harsh during the first year of testing, and waived sanctioning until next fall.
``We felt quite sure our member institutions would not have a fair opportunity to prepare their teams with the kind of in-season testing that we were applying to post-season testing,'' Toner explained.
To achieve fairness, the committee also realizes that it needs to consider whether drug-taking bench warmers should jeopardize team achievements. They should not,the committee agrees, but the tough part comes in determining which athletes play a ``significant role'' in a team's success.
In football, where the NCAA holds playoffs for three of four competitive divisions, Toner says that scoring contributions, tackles, or action at the point of attack could be used to determine who is a ``significant'' player.
In basketball, anybody in the game as much as a team's top five or seven players could qualify. But what would happen if, in the championship game, a seldom-used reserve hit the winning basket? Would the team be stripped of its title if this player tested positive for drugs? No easy answers exist.
Ultimately, of course, the NCAA hopes that drug problems can be nipped in the bud, discovered during the regular season and not when so much is riding on a playoff or championship game.
More and more schools are conducting their own drug tests, which can usually detect street drugs like cocaine. Sophisticated equipment, however, is generally required to detect banned substances like steroids. Each test costs the NCAA cost $260 to $275, making it an expensive proposition, but one it is determined to continue.
``We are encouraged by our laboratory friends, who say that with greater volume there will be reduced costs,'' Toner says. ``We've got to develop a way for our state-of-the-art procedures to be available to member institutions in-season before we'll consider our job done.'' Grass-roots policing, therefore, is the goal.
Of the 1,047 tests administered last fall for cross-country and football, only 32 were positive. The results of winter sports testing aren't known yet. Even one drug user can be far too many, though - a point underscored by the cloud McLain has hung over Villanova's storybook triumph.