By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*
Your opponent drinks Red Bull before the race. How should you respond?
At the Western Athletic Conference swimming championships, rumors began swirling on the first night of the meet that Boise State swimmers had been seen drinking Red Bull. Boise State was favored in the meet and doing very well. But some other teams claimed that coaches and trainers of Boise State were advising their athletes to drink Red Bull and even providing it before the races, according to one newspaper report.
The Boise State coaches denied that, saying athletes were drinking Red Bull on their own. But claims on a blog following the meet suggested that some coaches, and not only at Boise State, were either handing out the drink or looking the other way when athletes used it. One person noted that athletes were hiding the drinks under their parkas and drinking them.
SwimmingWorldMagazine.com said WAC officials issued a reminder to teams and media that caffeine, one of the substances in Red Bull, was a banned substance in the NCAA.
NCAA rules say is caffeine is a banned stimulant and if drug testing shows that athletes have more than a certain amount in their urine, they can be suspended and lose their eligibility. The rules are designed to allow ordinary consumption of coffee, tea or cola, but to control excessive use designed to give an athlete a competitive advantage.
Red Bull also contains taurine, which the NCAA says is an “impermissible” substance. Teams are forbidden from providing impermissible substances to athletes, even in vitamin water drinks.
Neither Boise State nor any other teams were penalized for the use of Red Bull. Some athletes from other teams were extremely upset about what they saw as flagrant abuse of the rules. According to swimmers, when Boise State was announced as the winner, one team chanted “Red Bull” as the Boise State fight song played. Someone else left a case of Red Bull cans with the word “cheater” on it on a Boise State van, a swimmer said.
How would you respond if you think your opponent used a banned or impermissible substance to gain a competitive advantage? Imagine someone from another team approaches you and asks you to take part in a demonstration against the competitor who used the substance. Would you join in the “Red Bull” chant during the awards ceremony or hold up a sign saying “cheater”? Why, or why not?
At the WAC swimming championships, the athletes drinking Red Bull must have known that their actions were perceived as cheating, even if they didn’t fail an NCAA drug test. If some other teams were also drinking Red Bull, perhaps that was their way of trying to even the playing field. If one team breaks the rules, the other feels justified in doing the same.
When coaches received a letter from the WAC during the meet reminding them that caffeine was banned, they had several options for action. They could have told their players not to use Red Bull, or even penalized players who used the drink. One observer claimed that meet officials also ignored the use of Red Bull.
When one team chanted “Red Bull” during Boise State’s award ceremony, some athletes on other teams saw that as rude and poor sportsmanship. However, traditional avenues of addressing the impermissible substance had not been fruitful.
The Boise State team, after being called cheaters by opponents, may wonder whether the Red Bull controversy cheapened their victory. They were favorites going into the meet but now all some people will remember is the Red Bull controversy.
Imagine yourself in the various roles of people at the meet. What’s the best response for a coach? For a meet official? For an athlete who sees their competitor drinking Red Bull? Would you complain if the Red Bull drinker won? Would you complain if they lost? If your teammate offered you Red Bull, would you drink it?
Here’s what Dr. Sharon Kay Stoll of the Center for ETHICS says: