NCAA should be focusing on improving drug-testing program

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I was going to write a column today in the form of a letter to Mark Emmert. I was going to tell him how he needs to stop talking about things and start acting. Agents, runners, scholarships, BCS anti-trust, due process and just about everything else that seems to be going on in college athletics nowadays needs to addressed and addressed quickly.

Then I had to stop.

News surfaced Thursday afternoon that Oklahoma senior starting middle linebacker Austin Box died. Senior Writer Brett McMurphy reported that Box was found unresponsive and suffering from unknown medical issues before later being airlifted to Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City. The state medical examiner later confirmed he died.

Box was 22.

Austin Box stepped into a starting role after missing the first five games last season with a back (AP)  
Austin Box stepped into a starting role after missing the first five games last season with a back (AP)  
That's the part that makes these stories so sad, so tragic. Box had just gone through graduation ceremonies in Norman on Saturday, earning a sociology-criminology degree and was taking a little time off before resuming summer conditioning workouts. Now his parents, Craig and Gail, instead of celebrating the accomplishment of earning a degree, are grieving over his death.

"The Box family wishes to express their appreciation for the outpouring of sympathy from across the state," a statement released by the family said. "We particularly want to thank the University of Oklahoma, the coaching staff and players for their kindness and support. Austin loved everything about Oklahoma -- the people, his hometown of Enid and his many close friends. Most of all, Austin loved his family and we loved him. We invite you to join us in celebrating his life."

When I was searching for what degree Box had received, an Oklahoma message board popped up. It was full of posts wishing Box and fellow linebacker Travis Lewis congratulations on receiving their degrees. More than one said congrats, the future was bright for them. Many were excited about Box leading the Sooners to another national title and based on their No. 1 preseason ranking, had good reason to believe he would do just that.

Instead of celebrating the future this week, the Sooners are left wondering why -- trying to figure out why a player in his prime is now gone.

A report from Fox 25 in Oklahoma City noted that Box took an unnamed "controlled dangerous substance" and "probably overdosed." A chilling 911 call was later released with J.T. Cobble, Box's friend and the person he was staying with, pleading for an ambulance.

"There's a guy who stayed with me last night and he's not responding to me," Cobble told the 911 operator. "He takes pain pills and he's not responding to me."

Box's death follows the terrible news of the passing of Alabama offensive tackle Aaron Douglas, who died of a probable overdose last week in Jacksonville, Fla.

Their deaths should serve as a wakeup call.

Instead of worrying about paying players or what their cost of living is, perhaps we should be looking at the NCAA drug-testing program and how schools and coaches can get better at seeing the signs of players using. The NCAA drug testing brochure lists 44 substances that are banned in eight classes of drugs yet pages and pages of the association's drug testing document are devoted to how they can get back their eligibility. Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins was arrested two times for marijuana possession before finally getting kicked off the team. He wasn't caught by the school's drug-testing program but rather by the cops.

It's time to change the focus and the breadth of the NCAA testing program. If an increase in funding and more rigorous testing can detect a player's issues early and help prevent an overdose or arrest just once, isn't it worth it?

The programs themselves are not perfect and changes need to go beyond having tests more frequently. Iowa admitted in December it found "flaws and inconsistencies" in its testing program in the wake of wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos' arrest. Many raised questions about Tennessee's testing program when former starting quarterback Erik Ainge admitted to taking large amounts of prescription drugs, alcohol, cocaine and marijuana. Perhaps most disturbing was the fact he got hooked on painkillers, which is what Box reportedly overdosed on.

"I was hooked on them and I was playing football, and there was no way I was going to cancel my senior year by going to rehab," Ainge told "I started getting them from people, buying them, getting them off the street. I wasn't the only player on the team that was doing it, so we knew people. It wasn't, like, super sketchy or anything. We knew people who had them, and we were Tennessee football players, so they pretty much just gave them to us."

Something needs to change. Headlines like the one about Box are becoming commonplace in the game and that should concern administrators just as much -- and probably more -- than any agent, any stipend or any schedule.

Douglas was arrested in December for a DUI. Box was arrested in February for urinating on bar stools outside a bar. Perhaps the incidents were unrelated to their deaths but the arrests should have had people asking questions. It's tough for a coaching staff to know what their athletes are doing all the time but let's make sure everything is in place to give them as much help in seeing these problems as possible.

So, to Mark Emmert and everyone else involved in college athletics, I hope Aaron Douglas and Austin Box serve as a wakeup call. Hopefully you'll do something before we have to add another name on the list.

Let's stop talking and start acting before it's too late.


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