Painkiller control rests out of NCAA's hands

The NCAA would have been very interested if the University of South Carolina gave Nathan Pepper a between-meals item from the McDonald's "Dollar Menu" during his official visit as a high school football prospect.

The NCAA could have come down hard had USC coaches placed a phone call to Pepper during a "dead" recruiting period or if a Gamecock fan made illicit "contact" by offering a T-shirt.

But when it comes to keeping an eye on the type or amount of painkiller injections given to Pepper or any college football player to keep them on the field, the powerful ruling body of college sports looks the other way.

Painkiller prescription medication is not monitored.

Like most college players, Pepper has NFL dreams. He said he regularly was given Toradol injections during 2008.

"Coming back last season after my knee surgery, I took a shot before games," Pepper said. "It was something the doctor recommended I do. It was more preventive than anything."

Toradol is a painkiller common in college football and various professional sports. Pepper said he was "comfortable" with advice from South Carolina's medical staff.

But the NCAA wouldn't know if a South Carolina or Clemson player received one Toradol shot or 30 last week, or if a given school under its wide jurisdiction was refilling addictive OxyContin and Vicodin prescriptions by the shovel full.

"The NCAA does not monitor that from a national standpoint," said Mary Wilfert, the NCAA's Associate Director of Health and Safety. "That is left to the institutions and also left to those professional and legal and ethical regulatory bodies that folks in those fields operate under."

The NFL makes its member teams submit painkiller distribution reports.

The NCAA does not even go that far.

"Just way too much to try and get a handle on. Simple as that, unfortunately," said an NCAA official, requesting anonymity. "We just don't have the staff as it is."

Only one narcotic analgesic is banned by the NCAA.


The NCAA does not ignore health issues, or drugs. It has a 21-member Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports. The committee has two subcommittees: Drug-Education/Drug-Testing and Sports Sciences Safety.

The officially stated general duties of committee members include providing the NCAA membership direction on "alcohol, tobacco and other drug abuse prevention programs," among other things. The committee meets twice a year.

Mary Wilfert of the NCAA said the issue of painkiller injections in college football "has not been a major point of discussion" within the committee.

The NCAA has never done a study on painkiller injections or other painkiller medication, Wilfert said. A non-NCAA study done in 1991 reported that 75 percent of college athletes used some kind of painkiller medication for sports-related injuries.


The NCAA has a 120-page Sports Medicine Handbook. Subjects include nutrition, skin infections, "menstrual-cycle dysfunction" and "depression intervention." There also is one vague page on "The Use of Local Anesthetics in College Athletics."

The page has not been updated since 2004.

"The administration of these drugs by anyone other than a qualified clinician licensed to perform this procedure" is "not recommended," the page reads.

There is no spot-checking in football locker rooms around the country to see if injections come only from qualified doctors or nurses.

Any NCAA action on painkillers, Wilfert said, would have to come from the organization's Enforcement branch. In other words, one school would have to turn in another for some sort of violation the NCAA deems having to do with a lack of "institutional control."

That seems unlikely, at best.

But the NCAA and ACC haggled this summer over an ACC rules proposal seeking to specify "that an institution may provide fruit, nuts and bagels to student-athletes at any time." Bagel quality was a sticking point.

David Geier, director of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the NCAA would have a "gargantuan task" trying to monitor painkiller use.

"There are just so many more teams than the NFL," Geier said. "It would be an absolute nightmare trying to keep track of that, especially at smaller schools. But probably not a bad idea."

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