Dope Scandal: Why Is ESPN's Drugs-In-College-Football Story So Stupid?

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Honestly, I feel bad for everyone involved in the making of this ESPN The Magazine feature about college football's marijuana "problem," which has to be the stupidest sports-and-dope story I've read in an allegedly reputable outlet since the Yahoo guy went running around the Syracuse campus with a pee cup. I feel bad for the writer, Mark Schlabach, who apparently was stuffed in a closet and replaced with the high school principal from Reefer Madness. I feel bad for the story's editor, who must've been trapped beneath an armoire on the day the story crossed his desk. (How else to explain a sentence like, "The incidents highlight a trend in college football that has taken hold of the news cycle several times since the beginning of last season"? Those words don't mean anything. Seriously. "Those incidents in the news highlight a trend of incidents being in the news." Reading that sentence is like trying to chew on cotton candy. There isn't an editor I've written for who wouldn't have tossed me out the window for pulling shit like that.)

And maybe most of all I feel bad for ESPN The Magazine, which no one ever reads and which for so long could commit its atrocities secure in the knowledge that there would never be any witnesses. But now here's the magazine with its hilarious Joe Friday routine—dudes, quit bogarting Bob Ley's shit—splashed across the front page of

College football players smoking marijuana is nothing new. Coaches and administrators have been battling the problem and disciplining players who do so for decades. Still, "I believe it's becoming more and more frequent on campuses," says Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon. One Football Bowl Subdivision coach says that athletes of today seem to treat marijuana as players from previous generations treated alcohol and that many of his players prefer smoking pot to drinking because weed leaves no hangover.

NCAA statistics show a bump in the number of stoned athletes. In the NCAA's latest drug-use survey, conducted in 2009 and released in January, 22.6 percent of athletes admitted to using marijuana in the previous 12 months, a 1.4 percentage point increase over a similar 2005 study. Some 26.7 percent of football players surveyed fessed up, a higher percentage than in any other major sport. (The use of other drugs, such as steroids and amphetamines, has declined or held steady.) A smaller percentage of athletes actually get caught, but those numbers are also on the rise. In the latest available postseason drug-testing results, positive pot tests increased in all three divisions, from 28 in 2008-09 to 71 the following school year.

The NCAA has two drug-testing programs, both of which are administered by the National Center for Drug Free Sport, which also conducts testing in the NFL and NBA. One test is for football bowl games and championship events, such as the Final Four and Frozen Four. Any athlete testing positive for PEDs or recreational drugs in this test faces a mandatory one-year suspension. The other test is conducted year-round but does not screen for marijuana. In total, of the more than 400,000 athletes, about 0.6 percent will be tested for pot by the NCAA. "If they tested for pot at every random test, we'd see more suspensions," says one FBS compliance officer.


And on and on and on.

In the Year of our Lord 20fucking12, this is how ESPN is talking about pot—something millions of Americans have done without causing any harm to themselves or to others, which is more than you can say for, oh, I dunno, competitive football. ESPN thinks weed is a "problem." ESPN believes probable cause is a nuisance. ESPN worries that weed could "infiltrate" your football program. ESPN says weed is a "violent narcotic, an unspeakable scourge—the real Public Enemy Number One!"


Wait, sorry. That's Reefer Madness.

Now, for a counterpoint:

NEWS FLASH: COLLEGE kids smoke weed [...] [T]he Oregon football program provides an interesting case study on the impact — or lack thereof — of marijuana use among players [...]

Americans are "living in an environment where there's a greater tolerance of use, not just among the young and experimenters but also the old and afflicted," says Harry Edwards, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of sports sociology who works with major sports leagues on off-field issues. Recently, the researchers of a study in Sports Medicine wrote that athletes claim "smoking cannabis before play helps them focus better" and increases their creativity, and prior studies have found use among athletes to decrease anxiety, fear, depression and tension.

With social mores shifting toward wider acceptance, as they did long ago in Oregon, athletes who toke see little difference between marijuana and more acceptable, legal drugs, such as alcohol. Spend a night with an off-duty pro and you're more likely to see him high than drunk. [...]

At Oregon, there is a long tradition of players policing themselves. Several Ducks reference a "code" followed by teammates who handle weed-related matters in-house on a case-to-case basis. "Some guys who use marijuana go out and ball because they're relaxed," says former QB Akili Smith, "but if it affects his play, you sit him down and tell him, 'Yo, it's not for you.'?" Today, that code still stands. "If you're not hurting the team, everyone's cool with it," says a current Ducks player...

As weed has spread throughout college football, more often than not draft prospects elect to come clean. One senior NFL executive who interviewed players at the combine says about 70 percent confessed to smoking pot, likely on the advice of their agents. Their reasoning? Given the drug's popularity, if players deny having used weed, NFL teams will simply assume they're lying. One agent goes so far as to say that teams don't care about marijuana as much as character and integrity — implying that the lie would be far worse than the drug use. [...]

"Some of us smoke," he says, "and then we went out and won the Rose Bowl.

"Know what I mean?"

That's ESPN The Magazine's own reporting, from a sidebar that neatly contradicts the reasoning behind the main story.


Got it? One of the nation's most successful college football teams smokes tons of pot. The NFL expects players to smoke pot. Akili Smith supports players smoking pot. (Well, OK.)

None of this manages to penetrate the logic of the main scandal story, except near the end, when Bobby Bowden—who is old enough to know how stupid and self-destructive these drug panics are—toddles in and says the only thing in the piece that makes any sense: "If you don't want your boys to be caught with drugs, don't drug-test them." Of course, Schlabach slides right on by and yammers some more about stricter testing protocols, another college-sports scandal-hunter lost in another Officer Krupke reverie. What's happened to our sportswriters? Who the hell are these people? When did they turn into such a miserable bunch of freelance narcs?


(Full disclosure: I worked as a factchecker at ESPN The Magazine once upon a time.)

Higher education [ESPN]