College athletics' approach to marijuana murky, inconsistent – USA TODAY
DALLAS — Athletes at the University of Oregon are subject to random drug tests several times a year, but it’s not until the third positive test, athletics director Rob Mullens said, that a suspension would come into play.
“Education and support,” Mullens told USA TODAY Sports when asked what happens after the first two positives.
Because of privacy laws, it’s unknown whether Oregon receiver Darren Carrington, who will miss Monday’s national championship game against Ohio State after testing positive for marijuana, had ever failed a drug test before the Rose Bowl. But the fact he failed one administered by the NCAA — which one person with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed to USA TODAY Sports — highlights the inconsistent and increasingly murky nature of college athletics’ approach to marijuana.
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On one level, it is largely the responsibility of individual athletic departments to administer their own drug testing programs, controlling everything from the frequency of the tests to the severity of the punishments.
The NCAA, meanwhile, has its own year-round testing program, but it only tests for marijuana at bowl games in college football and postseason championships in other sports. And when there is a positive marijuana test in that environment, the punishment is severe and rigid: An immediate half-season suspension.
Mullens acknowledged Saturday that the wide gulf between Oregon’s policy on marijuana (which isn’t dissimilar from most schools) and the NCAA’s is a bit perplexing, especially given the political climate and societal paradigm shift toward its legalization.
“You could certainly argue (the NCAA policy) is heavy-handed, there’s no doubt,” Mullens said.
In its most recent quadrennial survey on drug use, the NCAA found that 16% of all Division I athletes and 17.4% of D-I football players admitted to using marijuana within the previous year.
Yet the number of instances in which the NCAA’s championship testing program has produced a high-profile positive test is relatively small. In 2008 Memphis’ backup point guard, Andre Allen, was suspended just before the Final Four and never played another game at the school. A more controversial example occurred last year when Michigan basketball player Mitch McGary, who hadn’t played since early in the season because of injury, was randomly tested anyway because the school allowed him to dress out. McGary tested positive, was hit with a suspension and decided to turn pro.
The primary reason more players don’t test positive, though, is simple. Regardless of whether they use marijuana, players are repeatedly made aware that bowl games or NCAA tournaments are places where they could be tested. There really are no surprises, and only someone that can’t stop (or takes a blatant risk) in the week or so leading up a postseason event would potentially test positive.
“Everybody knows that coming into the games,” Oregon freshman receiver Charles Nelson said. “Whatever you choose to do is on you. It’s a fair policy.”
Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost bristled at the notion that Carrington was simply guilty of bad timing.
“I think that any time you put anything in your body that doesn’t belong there it’s a bad decision,” he said.
Receiver Dwayne Stanford said the team felt more sympathy for Carrington than disappointment in him for his lapse in judgment at such a critical moment.
“We all make mistakes,” Stanford said. “His just happened to be (bad) timing, and it’s magnified. It’s just a bump in the road and something he’ll get stronger from and learn from for sure. He’s been having such a great year and contributing so much, my heart automatically went out to him. He’s down, for sure, to miss this game.”
In some ways, the NCAA already made a tacit admission that marijuana is different from other drugs. In 2013 it decreased the penalty for a positive test from a full season to a half season, taking it off the same level as steroids.
It’s also true that a handful of states — including Oregon, beginning July 1 — have approved marijuana for legal recreational use. That won’t change anything from an NCAA rules standpoint right away, but it’s something that could certainly start a movement toward rethinking how colleges handle the issue.
“These conversations always occur and as society changes, I’m sure there will be even deeper conversations,” Mullens said.
For now, though, the inconsistency from school to school, combined with the severity of the NCAA’s punishment, is an issue that will continue to confound athletic departments.
Though Oregon doesn’t suspend a player until the third positive marijuana test, for instance, Georgia has one of the most stringent policies in the nation. Athletics director Greg McGarity told USA TODAY Sports by phone Saturday that the first positive test is an automatic suspension for 10% of the season, which equates to one game for football and three for basketball.
“It’s just an institutional philosophical approach to what is best for your youngsters,” McGarity said. “We’ve always felt that if we can correct behavior that is against the law as quickly as possible it’s going to help them when they move on. I’d say it’s had a positive effect on our kids, those who have made mistakes, they learn pretty quickly in the majority of cases.”
In the spring of 2013, former Georgia President Michael Adams pushed for a more consistent approach within the Southeastern Conference where a first positive test would have the same punishment across the conference, but it gained “no traction” among other schools, McGarity said.
As marijuana legalization takes hold in more states, however, it’s certainly an issue that could rise to the national level in terms of re-examining whether the NCAA’s policy makes sense or if there’s a more consistent way for schools to handle testing.
In the meantime, schools have to hope that the NCAA’s policy — whether it’s appropriate or not — doesn’t cost them a key player on a stage like this.
“In the recruiting process, that’s one thing we try to do our best to find not just if he’s a good player but how mentally and how as a person he’d fit in our program,” receivers coach Matt Lubick said. “It’s a demanding culture and you can never investigate and know every single detail about a guy, but we try to do the best job we can and when they get there it’s not just coaching football it’s coaching life skills. We do as much as anybody if not more educating guys on decision making on a daily basis. You can’t make decisions for a person, but it’s something we stress every day.”