NCAA Backpedals on Banned Substances in Vitaminwater

Says Normal Consumption Doesn't Put Athletes at Risk for Positive Drug Tests

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- After a series of communication missteps, the NCAA is backtracking on its statement regarding banned and impermissible substances found in key corporate sponsor Vitaminwater.

A new NCAA press release said, 'To put it in perspective, an average-sized, healthy man would have to drink 10 20-ounce bottles of Vitaminwater Energy or Rescue within several hours of competition to reach the level that could potentially create a positive NCAA urine test.'
A new NCAA press release said, 'To put it in perspective, an average-sized, healthy man would have to drink 10 20-ounce bottles of Vitaminwater Energy or Rescue within several hours of competition to reach the level that could potentially create a positive NCAA urine test.'
In October, the NCAA announced a deal giving Vitaminwater's Revive flavor a sideline presence during all 88 NCAA championships. (Coca-Cola, the parent of Vitaminwater, is considered an NCAA "Corporate Champion," and signed an 11-year, $500 million deal in 2003.)

Shortly after the Vitaminwater deal was inked, the NCAA sent an e-mail to all athletic directors at Division I, II and III schools indicating that six flavors of Vitaminwater contained banned or impermissible substances. Then, in January, at the NCAA's Division I Convention, Latrice Sales, NCAA assistant director for health and safety, linked Vitaminwater to drug-testing issues. A digest from that meeting reads in part, "An aggressive educational effort will be necessary to help student-athletes understand that consuming some flavors of the drink could result in a positive drug test and the consequences that follow, including lost eligibility."

How much to test positive?
Neither a Vitaminwater Q&A on the NCAA's website nor a digest from the Division I Convention offered any concrete information about how much of the product would need to be consumed to produce a positive result in a drug test. A poster depicting six flavors of the brand as containing banned ingredients also began circulating. The poster prominently features logos of both the NCAA and Drug Free Sport, an organization that conducts drug testing for NCAA schools. Both groups deny distributing the poster, which contains the ominous heading, "Student-Athlete Warning on Vitaminwater."

Meanwhile, athletic directors, it appears, were left to their own devices to communicate with student-athletes. An article published Feb. 6 in Brown University's Brown Daily Herald reported that some athletic coaches were telling their teams not to drink the banned flavors. The article goes on to say that multiple calls for comment to NCAA headquarters went unreturned.

In the days that followed, a variety of publications and blogs, including Ad Age, reported the story. The NCAA could not initially be reached for comment by Ad Age and responded on the morning of Feb. 11, the day after an article was published on AdAge.com. In that response, Bob Williams, NCAA managing director-public relations, never said media coverage or Ad Age's coverage of the situation was incorrect. He did not answer follow-up questions seeking to clarify the situation.

Impermissible, not banned
Instead, the NCAA responded with a press release titled "For the Record: NCAA Corrects Inaccurate Media Coverage of the NCAA/Vitaminwater Relationship" late in the day on Feb. 11. After the release was published, Mr. Williams said in an e-mail to Ad Age, "Four of the six varieties you reference are categorized as impermissible, which simply means that schools cannot provide them to student-athletes under NCAA extra-benefit rules. It has nothing to do with testing positive for banned substances. Student-athletes can purchase and drink as much of the four varieties as they wish without any risk of a failed drug test. In fact, the substances contained in the impermissible varieties are not even tested for in the drug-testing program. The issue with impermissible varieties primarily rests with the institutions. ... They have to ensure they do not provide them and subsequently violate the extra-benefit rule."

Yet, Mr. Williams did say that the Brown University article and the NCAA's own coverage regarding Vitaminwater were "technically correct."

From a PR perspective, the NCAA's frantic backpedaling, evident in the publication of the press release, only draws further attention to its mishandling of the situation. But the release accomplished one thing: At long last, it let student-athletes know they shouldn't be concerned about consuming Vitaminwater. Now, the NCAA says "normal daily consumption" of any of the 13 varieties Vitaminwater currently sells will not put student-athletes at risk of testing positive for banned substances.

Only low levels of caffeine
Two varieties, Energy and Rescue, contain banned ingredients, but the NCAA now points out that they have only low levels of caffeine. "To put it in perspective, an average-sized, healthy man would have to drink 10 20-ounce bottles of Vitaminwater Energy or Rescue within several hours of competition to reach the level that could potentially create a positive NCAA urine test," the NCAA said in the press release.

It's important information, indeed, that should have been made public on the NCAA website or in communications with athletic directors well before this week.

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Contributing: Rich Thomaselli
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