The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) says that it is time for the NCAA to join the international doping scheme, according to president Witold Banka in an interview with Reuters.
In the U.S., a significant portion of the most visible athletics in the country exists outside of the international anti-doping authority that governs most of the world’s anti-doping activity, including at events like the Olympics.
Professional leagues like the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL all have their own drug testing programs that usually give more lenient sentences than what would be ascribed under WADA rules. The NCAA too doesn’t adhere strictly to WADA’s rules, instead implementing its own anti-doping system.
The NCAA has more than 480,000 athletes at any given time, making it one of the broadest sporting governing bodies in the world. While some of those athletes, like elite swimmers, overlap in USA Swimming or FINA competition where they are tested, the results of NCAA-issued doping tests are not necessarily reported to FINA.
Further, suspensions issued on the basis of World Anti-Doping Code tests are not necessarily recognized by the NCAA. For example, Rutgers swimmer Liza Ryndych was suspended by the Russian Anti-Doping Association (RUSADA) for two years, dating back to June 2011, but that suspension does not impact her NCAA results.
The pros of pulling the NCAA into the anti-doping system, for athletes, including reducing the strain of having to participate in multiple anti-doping programs across different protocols. Entering the WADA system could also encourage more equitable enforcement across universities. A study has shown that rules vary widely from college to college and that the NCAA’s anti-doping policies are, by-and-large, a flop.
Earlier this year, for example, the NCAA dramatically raised its threshold for a positive marijuana test to 150 nanograms per milliliter, which is almost five-times the previous level.
Marijuana usage could become one of the major sticking points in the NCAA joining WADA. The NCAA has recommended more lenient penalties for early tests for marijuana, which several other American pro sports leagues have done as well. The NBA, for example, says that it will no longer randomly test its athletes for marijuana.
“I think it is time to think about collaboration and how we can encourage them (the NCAA and U.S. professional sports) to be co-signatories,” said Banka. “It should be the initiative of USADA and the USOPC and they have to express a willingness to do it because we cannot force them to do it.
“I told them we are very open to start working with you but the ball is in their court now.”
While Banka’s comments center around the moral imperative of the NCAA and US pro sports leagues joining WADA, there would be a budgetary benefit to WADA as well. The United States currently contributes more to WADA’s budget than any other country, but funding by national governments can be fickle – as was seen in 2020 when the US threatened to pull its funding from the organization over political differences. Drawing new deep-pocket ‘customers’ from the US into WADA would help diversify the organization’s funding.
This comes as attitudes about marijuana undergo dramatic changes in the U.S. and is becoming legal in much of the country.
But there will be continued hesitation by American leagues to join the international hierarchy of doping given that these leagues are generally limited in competition to North America (the U.S. and Canada) and have their own commercial incentives for how they construct their doping policies. Major League Baseball, for example, adopted a new policy in 2014 that has a maximum 80 game suspension for a first-time doping offense. WADA policies would call for a maximum four-year suspension for a first-time doping offense, which wouldn’t necessarily be in the commercial interests of a professional sports league.
The leagues also often use financial penalties in the form of fines to keep athletes in treatment programs, which wouldn’t be in compliance with WADA guidelines. Under current schemes, the leagues and the NCAA are also able to maintain control of their own programs, conduct their own internal investigations, and have their own appeals processes. In the case of pro sports leagues – those things are independently negotiated with players’ unions, which would be unlikely to give up the authority to negotiate those things by agreeing to a deal with WADA.
Perhaps it doesn’t make sense, then, for these multi-billion dollar sports leagues, which are well-and-truly entertainment ventures as much as they are about health-and-fitness, to join an international doping body that has as much duty to the interests of amateur swimmers and judokas around the world as they do to multi-millionaire athletes in the US. These leagues are wildly different in structure and culture than most of the sports served by the World Anti-Doping Code, and while joining WADA has the potential to reduce doping in American collegiate and professional athletics, the change will likely remain too big of a pill to swallow.