The Latest Scoop

Investigative journalists across the country are finding universities to be out of compliance with the NCAA’s rule on distributing supplements. Make sure you’re not the next to be in the headlines.

By Greg Sholand

Greg Scholand is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at: gs@MomentumMedia.com.

Athletic Management, 17.6, October/November 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1706/latestscoop.htm

When the NCAA implemented bylaw 16.5.2.g in August of 2000, restricting which nutritional supplements Division I institutions could distribute to their athletes, the University of Texas was confident it had taken all the necessary steps to comply. Athletic department staff members evaluated each supplement they gave out to make sure it fit the requirements. They even submitted breakdowns of the nutritional content to NCAA Membership Services to verify that everything was acceptable. And all the products had been cleared through the National Center for Drug Free Sport to ensure they contained no banned substances.

Then, this spring, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram revealed that Texas had spent $90,000 on impermissible supplements since the rule took effect. “We had no idea we were doing anything wrong,” says Tina Bonci, Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine at Texas. “We absolutely believed we had done everything the legislation required.”

Indeed, the NCAA acknowledged that Texas had not intentionally broken any rules. But the association also agreed with the Star-Telegram report concluding that the purchases were in violation—a very unflattering publicity hit for the university.

Bylaw 16.5.2.g does not focus on substances banned by the NCAA, but rather on the types of supplements that member schools can and cannot purchase and distribute to student-athletes. However, a newspaper headline that reads “University Hands Out Impermissible Supplements” can create the impression that a school is pushing harmful substances on its athletes, even if that’s not the case. “Just reading the headlines, you would think that we were giving out products that were endangering the health and safety of athletes, and that wasn’t true,” Bonci says.

What was true, however, was that Texas had misinterpreted a complicated rule—and they weren’t alone. Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Indiana University, Purdue University, San Diego State University, and the University of Minnesota have all learned this year that they were distributing at least one supplement that ran afoul of 16.5.2.g. In almost all these instances, it was a local newspaper that uncovered the violations, typically following the Star-Telegram’s example by conducting Freedom of Information Act inquiries into the athletic department’s purchases.

The specific products varied from school to school, but many of the incidents shared a common thread: a misunderstanding of exactly what is not permissible, combined with uncertainty about how to properly evaluate the supplements. None of the schools have been sanctioned, but the NCAA released a clarification of its supplement rules in May and warned that future violations could result in penalties. And of course, the institutions involved found the publicity most unwelcome.

LETTER OF THE LAW
NCAA bylaw 16.5.2.g applies only to Division I institutions, but in Division II, bylaw 16.5.1.h contains nearly identical language and the intent and application are the same. In Division III, no supplements of any kind may be distributed to student-athletes.

The bylaw was put in place for two very specific reasons. “The primary concern that drove this rule was an escalating trend of institutions providing dietary supplements to student-athletes, despite the fact that the supplement industry is not very well regulated,” explains Mary Wilfert, NCAA Assistant Director of Education Outreach and Chief Liaison to the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sport, which recommended the proposal to the Management Council in 1999. “So, first of all, we wanted to restrict dietary supplement distribution.”

The second concern, Wilfert says, was competitive balance. Before the bylaw was implemented, schools with deeper pockets were able to offer supplements that helped athletes build muscle, gain weight, and increase their energy level. In the NCAA’s view, this gave them a competitive advantage over programs with less money to spend.

The bylaw places strict limitations on what types of products schools can distribute to student-athletes—it does not prohibit athletes from making purchases on their own. “This rule essentially allows institutions to provide things that will replace the calories, electrolytes, and fluids lost during athletic participation,” Wilfert says. “They are not allowed to hand out any supplements that contribute to performance enhancement or promote weight gain.”

According to the NCAA’s guidelines, a supplement must satisfy three separate tests to be permissible for distribution. First, it must fall into one of four general categories: carbohydrate/electrolyte drinks (which includes sports drinks), energy bars, carbohydrate boosters, or vitamins and minerals. These were identified as acceptable by the NCAA because they typically don’t contribute to performance enhancement. In addition, they are widely used by the public at large.

If a supplement fits into one of the categories, the next step is determining the percentage of its calories that come from protein. By rule, no more than 30 percent of calories can come from protein, a figure that the association says represents a calories-from-protein ratio comparable to a typical balanced meal. Wilfert also notes that protein ratios above 30 percent are frequently found in muscle-building and weight-gain supplements.

A supplement that fits an accepted category and falls below the protein limit must also meet one more test: It may not contain any banned substance, or any ingredient specified by the NCAA as impermissible (to see the most up-to-date list of impermissible ingredients, go to www.ncaa.org and search for “impermissible supplements”). The list includes several popular supplements and compounds considered to be performance enhancing, such as ginseng, tribulus, and ginkgo biloba. It also includes protein powders, because any product with added protein from artificial, non-whole-food sources—often referred to on a label as a “protein blend” or “proprietary protein”—cannot be distributed. Products that contain added amino acids or amino acid chelates are also impermissible.

Wilfert emphasizes that the impermissible list is not exhaustive, and that schools must understand the spirit of the legislation rather than focus exclusively on the names that appear on the list. “Our list contains examples of things that aren’t allowed. It does not include every impermissible substance and ingredient, because it’s practically impossible to keep up with all the new products on the market,” she says. “Unless something creates such a level of danger that it comes to the attention of the FDA, there’s no real oversight of supplement ingredients. If an institution is unsure about a specific ingredient that’s not on the list, they should contact Membership Services for further clarification.”

It’s also important to remember that a label may call an impermissible ingredient by a different name than that found on the list. For example, L-lysine and L-proline are both specific amino acids that make a product impermissible, though the list only identifies “amino acids” as a general category.

LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
Passing the impermissible ingredients test has proven to be the biggest stumbling block for athletic programs. In Texas’s case, its supplements were in violation of the bylaw’s prohibition on added amino acids. As the building blocks of protein molecules, amino acids are naturally present in any product containing protein, but when they’re added artificially—that is, when they show up on a product’s ingredient list—that product cannot be distributed to athletes.

Before the noncompliance was uncovered, Texas believed it was following all the right steps in analyzing its supplements. The sports-medicine staff calculated the protein content of each supplement and sent the information to NCAA Membership Services for verification. But focusing on the 30-percent provision of the rule, and not the ingredient list, turned out to be a critical oversight.

“When we sent our product information to the NCAA, we had already evaluated the products ourselves, and we were looking for an interpretation that considered the entire legislation,” Bonci says. “But the NCAA didn’t see the ingredients, so they were just looking at the breakdowns we provided in which we calculated the protein percentages. They said that we had interpreted that part correctly, and we took that to mean the supplements were okay to distribute.”

As soon as the sports-medicine staff learned otherwise, they re-evaluated the supplements that had been found impermissible and immediately stopped distributing them. The compliance office then self-reported the violation. “We also submitted the products to the NCAA a second time,” Bonci says, “just to verify and document that the supplements were in fact impermissible.”

Purdue’s run-in with 16.5.2.g began in much the same way Texas’s had. In June, just over a month after the first Star-Telegram article, the Indianapolis Star reported that its own investigation had uncovered a combined $47,000 in impermissible supplement purchases by the athletic departments at Purdue and Indiana. Among the culprits at Purdue were a recovery drink that contained “branched chain amino acids” on the ingredient list and a supplement that had an ingredient identified as a “protein blend.”

Dennis Miller, Purdue’s Head Athletic Trainer, says his department took what it believed were all the necessary steps to ensure that nothing unsafe was being provided to student-athletes. “We felt then, and we still feel, that we complied with the spirit of the legislation completely,” he explains. “When we originally evaluated our supplements, we looked at several things to make sure they fit within the rules and determined that they were all right.”

Like Texas, Purdue had focused on the 30-percent provision and did not recognize that the words “protein blend” on an ingredient list meant that a supplement was impermissible. The supplement in question had a total protein content, including the protein blend, under 30 percent of its calories, and the athletic department even found out from the manufacturer that the source of the protein was natural—it came from beef, whey, and eggs. Nonetheless, since the label did not specify the nature of the protein additive, the NCAA ruled the supplement impermissible.

The bottom line, says Miller, is that correctly interpreting the rules on supplement distribution can be tricky, and the key is closely scrutinizing anything that your department gives out. “We understand that as a member institution it’s our job to evaluate all the products we use, and that’s certainly what we try to do,” he says. “We really look hard at the labels on all the products that we consider. We aren’t going to order anything without giving it a close look and making sure it won’t create a problem.”

TEAM APPROACH
Giving everything that “close look” means that athletic departments should turn to the right people when it comes to evaluating their supplements. At Texas, all the school’s supplement purchases are supervised by a panel that includes members of the sports-medicine and strength and conditioning staffs, the head team physician, a consulting nutritionist, the director of compliance, and the chair of the pharmacology department. After a product has been checked for banned substances using the National Center for Drug Free Sport’s Resource Exchange Center, its ingredients and nutritional content are reviewed by the panel to ensure that it is permissible under 16.5.2.g. If it fails, it is not purchased. If it passes, the panel documents its findings and the supplement is approved for distribution. If questions arise, the director of compliance seeks a specific interpretation from the NCAA.

It’s also important that everyone in the athletic department—not just the sports-medicine staff—understands the limits on what can be distributed. “Many times the marketers of a supplement will contact one of the sport coaches, and give them a pitch about a new product that they claim can have amazing results,” says Carolyn Peters, Assistant Athletic Trainer at San Diego State University. “They’ll sometimes offer a free or reduced-price trial, and if that coach isn’t fully aware of all the details of the NCAA rules, they may accept it because at first glance it doesn’t throw up any red flags.

“Also, just because a marketer says a product doesn’t contain anything that is banned by the NCAA, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for the institution to distribute,” Peters continues. “Obviously the institution has to follow stricter rules when it comes to distributing the supplement, so there needs to be good communication between the compliance director, every sport’s coaching staff, directors of operations, strength and conditioning coaches, and athletic trainers about any supplements that may come in. All those people need to be kept updated about what is not allowed.”

A SAFE ROUTE
If the potential for confusion and the time-consuming evaluation of product labels sounds unappealing, there is one simple way to steer clear of supplement distribution problems: Don’t distribute supplements. At Butler University, this strategy has kept the athletic department from having to worry about breaking the rules, not to mention any concern about the safety of supplements being handed out.

The only substance that student-athletes at Butler can ever expect to receive from someone on staff is a sports drink, according to Bruce Willard, Director of Sports Medicine. “So many supplements are really unproven, not only in terms of their effectiveness but also in terms of unanticipated effects they may have,” he explains. “Our policy was established primarily for the welfare of our athletes. It’s difficult to know exactly what some of these supplements do—both in the short term and the long term—and we didn’t want to be a part of distributing something that was potentially harmful.”

Butler’s staff also promotes the philosophy that eating a balanced diet and working hard in the weightroom are the best ways to achieve optimum performance, and the athletic department supplying any kind of supplements would contradict that ideal. “In college athletics we don’t spend enough time telling kids to work harder and eat better and do the simple things to be more successful,” Willard says. “At Butler, we say that if you work hard and take care of your body, good things will happen. Do some athletes enjoy positive gains from certain things they take? Of course. But at what cost? That’s the big question, and it’s one we can’t answer.”

The downside of not distributing any supplements is that some athletes may choose to seek out products on their own, which can pose even greater risks. Willard recognizes this, so all Butler student-athletes are strongly encouraged to consult an athletic trainer whenever they are considering a supplement—to determine whether it’s safe, to check for banned substances, and to discuss potential effects and side-effects.

THE RIGHT FOCUS
For schools that do choose to distribute supplements, Wilfert suggests they focus on the intent behind the NCAA rule, and remember that basic nutrition should always be the top priority. “The first thing to do when evaluating any supplement for distribution is to see if it meets the basic intent of calorie, fluid, and electrolyte replacement,” she says. “Those are the types of products that this legislation has no problem with. For anything besides replenishment, we want to emphasize that student-athletes should get their nutrition through whole foods, and that’s what this bylaw is really about.”

Bonci, for one, has taken that advice to heart. “We want to make sure that we understand the rules and that we are following them completely,” she says. “But above all, we never want to do anything that could endanger the health and safety of our athletes in any way. That alone is enough reason to be very, very careful.”

A version of this article appeared in Athletic Management’s sister publication, Training & Conditioning.



Sidebar: ARE THEY NEEDED?
With the difficulty of navigating the NCAA’s supplement-distribution rule, should athletic departments consider not handing out supplements at all? While most administrators would prefer their student-athletes obtain all the energy and nutrients they need from food, a recent study conducted by Pam Hinton, Assistant Professor of Dietetics at the University of Missouri, showed this to be a difficult undertaking.

Last year, Hinton collected data on the nutritional intakes and eating habits of 345 male and female student-athletes at a Division I university. She found that 73 percent of male athletes and 70 percent of female athletes were consuming too few calories to meet the energy demands of their sport. For carbohydrate intake, 90 percent of the males and 81 percent of the females failed to meet the minimum recommendations. And for daily protein needs, 81 percent of male athletes and 68 percent of female athletes were not getting an adequate supply.

In other words, the vast majority of your athletes may be compromising their performance due to lack of energy. As Hinton explains, dietary energy allows the body to adapt to the stress of training and to recover between training sessions. Without enough calories, carbohydrates, and protein, athletes cannot train to their potential, are more frequently ill and injured, and can have trouble maintaining their mental energy for both athletics and academics.

At the University of Texas, such undereating is a major reason the athletic department distributes supplements to its athletes. “There are some situations where supplementation is critical because it’s a real challenge to feed our student-athletes the quality and quantity of food they need to sustain the intensity and volume of their training,” says Tina Bonci, Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine at Texas. “For example, when a rowing team has practice at 5 a.m. and they have to get to their first class at 8 a.m., when are they going to have time to make and eat breakfast? If we can hand them an energy bar and some type of drink before and after their workout, we are helping them quickly refuel, which is critical to their training.”

To read a more in-depth article on this topic, search “Running on Empty” at www.AthleticSearch.com


Sidebar: HIGH SCHOOL SURVEY
At the high school level, most athletic departments do not hand out any nutritional supplements to their athletes, leaving the decision of whether to use them up to the athletes themselves. Earlier this year, the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) decided to find out just what choices athletes in their state were making on their own.

The IHSAA conducted an anonymous statewide supplement survey, gathering information from 3,200 athletes at over 100 schools. IHSAA officials were pleased to learn that only a small percentage of athletes are using the substances they’re most concerned about.

A large majority—95 percent of males and 93 percent of females—reported consuming sports drinks to enhance performance. Thirty-nine percent of males and 36 percent of females take vitamin supplements, 37 percent of males use protein bars or powders, and 13 percent of females use meal-replacement bars or drinks. Seventeen percent of males and one percent of females reported using creatine, and one percent or less of both genders said they used androstenedione (commonly known as andro), dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), or beta-hydroxy methylbutyrate (HMB).

One number, however, did cause concern. Thirty percent of males and 17 percent of females said they use energy-enhancing products, such as highly caffeinated energy drinks or gels, many of which also contain other stimulants not regulated by the FDA. “That did raise a bit of a red flag for us,” says Alan Beste, IHSAA Assistant Executive Director and Wellness Coordinator, “because those products can have some negative effects if used improperly.”

The survey also asked athletes to identify their main sources of information about performance-enhancing products. Topping the list for both males and females were friends (44 percent for males and 50 percent for females), parents (37 percent for both genders), and coaches (37 percent for males and 35 percent for females). No other single group—doctors, athletic trainers, school nurses, or athletic directors—polled above 15 percent for either gender.

When the IHSAA Board of Control met this summer, members discussed the survey findings and decided that promoting education was the best way to combat potentially risky supplement use. As a result, the association is preparing a PowerPoint presentation on supplementation, as well as a new printed pamphlet about energy enhancing products. The materials will be provided to high schools in the state and available to the general public via the association’s Web site: www.iahsaa.org.