The NCAA's Weed Policy: A History of Ignorance

The NCAA has always regarded drugs as inherently evil. As the rest of the country gets with the program, the NCAA is still lagging behind.

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Oct 15 2014, 12:10pm

Photo by user Pigsby via Wikimedia Commons

Ohio wants to make sure all of its college athletes aren't smoking pot because it's the job of state governments to ignore their actual jobs. On October 8, a bill was introduced to the Ohio state legislature that would require mandatory drug testing for all college athletes at both public and private colleges. Not only does it make little sense for the state of Ohio to intercede in college athletic drug testing, but the NCAA shouldn't be testing for marijuana at all. As always, institutions are desperate to take on work they're plainly unqualified for.

Marijuana isn't merely on the periphery of this diversionary legislation; it's the reason the legislation exists. Representative Peter Beck, the bill's co-sponsor, offered an explanation so worthless it contained more logical fallacies than words. Beck told Cleveland.com that he heard two professional athletes were charged with marijuana possession in a different state and "Well, they just didn't start with marijuana when they signed the contract...maybe they started while they were in college." The ultimate sign of bullshit legislation is if its entire epistemic foundation is a hypothetical.

As it happens, that bullshit piece of legislation is founded on bullshit. Most college athletes who use marijuana do not start in college. In a 2012 NCAA study of substance abuse among student athletes, two-thirds of athletes who admitted to using marijuana in their lives did so for the first time before they turned 18.

Read More: A Brief History of Performance Enhancing Drugs

On a more practical level, the bill—and NCAA policy as a whole—presumes testing for marijuana acts as a deterrent. "It gives our athletes a reason to say no," wheezed USC Athletic Director Mike McGee in December of 1985, before he slowly raised his index finger in preparation for a fair bit of wagging. "In other words, if I want to go to USC and be involved in the athletic program I'd better not be involved in drugs usage." Better not, kids! Actually, history has proven McGee did an awful lot of finger-exercising for nothing more than promoting digital dexterity.

In 1984, prior to any formal drug testing, the NCAA surveyed over 2,600 college athletes about their drug habits. Twenty-seven percent of those surveyed said they used marijuana. Fifteen years after nationwide drug testing for college athletes, a study in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine reported that 28.4 percent of college athletes had used the drug, almost no change from the pre-testing generation. In 2012, the NCAA found "22.6 percent of respondents indicated use of marijuana in the last year." Considering that the margin for error on these studies is typically within a few percentage points, the rate of marijuana use among college athletes has remained virtually unchanged since testing began.

The NCAA began testing for marijuana based on faulty logic in the first place. Marijuana was lumped in with the street drug panic of the 1980s despite a lack of hard science on its supposed deleterious effects. "This is a societal problem,'' squawked the athletic director of the University of Pittsburgh, Edward E. Bozik, to the New York Times while missing the point of drug testing. Bozik—who, I'm warning you, is about to use the term "youngsters" unironically—asserted the basis for drug testing was not scientific evidence, but paternalistic platitudes. ''We are more in the public sector, and the youngsters [author's note: ughhhhhhh] are subjected to more opportunities to be in that culture than the normal student. I feel a special obligation to deal with this.''

The next month, Florida State University began testing its athletes for marijuana and cocaine because "we felt these were the two drugs most detrimental to our sport," FSU Associate Athletic Director Bob Goin fabricated to the Miami Herald, presumably because everyone involved with the NCAA loves being wrong all the time. Goin claimed that they were "advised to [implement testing] by our doctors and trainers," which hopefully resulted in the termination of those doctors and trainers.

Although individual colleges were testing athletes on an ad-hoc basis, the NCAA as a whole couldn't agree on a testing policy, largely because of disagreements over which street drugs to test for. This would change in 1986, when a gambling scandal galvanized the NCAA against… drugs, obviously. In April 1985, eight Tulane basketball players were indicted in a point-shaving scandal and investigators found that one player, Gary Kranz, used cocaine as a means of luring the other members of the team into the scheme. The NCAA pulled a classic bait-and-switch, blaming cocaine for the scandal and not the obvious economic incentives facing unpaid college players. In accordance with NCAA bylaws, rather than learning a valuable lesson from the real world, the NCAA added new layers to its bullshit casserole.

Ultimately, the NCAA didn't care so much about curbing drug use, but rather about appearing to do so; marijuana was lumped in with far more dangerous drugs because the NCAA wanted to maintain a clean image. "I'm scared to death about the combination of gambling and drugs," cowered then-NCAA President John Toner while speaking to the Washington Post two months after the Tulane players were indicted. "We have the responsibility to regulate the safety of the student-athlete and the integrity of the sports." It was much easier to test for drugs than it would have been to actually acknowledge and address the ubiquitous influence of money on the college game. At no point did paying the laborers for their labor become a serious consideration because, well, the NCAA really likes being super-rich.

NCAA artist's rendering of college sports on drugs. Photo via Wikicommons

In January 1986, the NCAA's Integrity Convention—second only to FIFA's Ethics Committee in the Unintentionally Ironic Sports Committees contest—instituted a new random drug testing policy for anabolic steroids and street drugs. One positive test for any banned substance resulted in a minimum 90-day suspension.

From the beginning, the NCAA focused on drug testing as equal parts deterrent and moral mandate. "It is my view that an institution such as USC needed to show that concern for our athletes," McGee, the athletic director, blubbered at the time. "Also, the university is in a position of exerting some positive influence on the whole drug abuse problem in athletics." The timing was foreboding, if coincidental: six months after the NCAA's policy was announced, Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose just days after being selected second overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft.

But for all of the NCAA's talk of "drugs," it continuously fails to differentiate between different kinds of drugs, which stymies informed debates on the benefits and drawbacks of each substance and inevitably harms the athletes they vow to help. Unlike cocaine, PEDs, or prescription painkillers, marijuana has no performance-enhancing aspect on the field. In fact, every short-term effect of marijuana seems specifically engineered to make you a terrible athlete: slower reaction time, reduced hand-eye coordination, and increased fatigue, just to name a few.

But marijuana does have off-the-field benefits that explain why athletes have continued to use it, despite the ban. While not a performance-enhancer in a traditional sense, marijuana is an effective pain-management tool and far less dangerous than regularly-distributed and highly-addictive prescription painkillers. Pot is far less harmful to athletes than binge drinking, which has nearly double the frequency among NCAA athletes (not to mention its popularity among NCAA coaches, especially before they get into their cars). If the NCAA actually cared about its athletes, it would let them smoke weed. But we know the NCAA doesn't care about its athletes. After all, if the NCAA did care about its athletes, it would pay them. And let them smoke weed.