Football’s losing war on marijuana

Tennessee Titans backup quarterback Chris Simms has pleaded not guilty to driving while under the influence of illicit drugs, in this case marijuana. On Tuesday, in a lower Manhattan court room, a police officer told jurors that on July 1, 2010, at around 1:00 a.m., Simms made a “tire-squealing “turn” just before a police sobriety checkpoint in lower Manhattan. The officer further informed the jury that there was a strong odor of marijuana coming from Simms’ Mercedes-Benz SUV, and when approached, Simms began to slur his words, walk unsteadily, and said there wasn’t any marijuana left because “he smoked it all.”

                                                                                    Mitchell Ayes  May 4, 2011

The NCAA handbook defines marijuana as a banned substance.  The regulations call for random testing, in fall camp and at championship events like bowl games, and players who fail are subject to a one-year suspension and a loss of eligibility. Ever humorless and unsympathetic, there’s no exception allowed for medical marijuana and no bonus points given for clever answers to the cops.

When Simms (who of course, is no longer subject to NCAA rules) and Harris piped up with their clever rejoinder, they may have been under the influence. According to the websites Wikipedia and, marijuana was used as a truth serum by the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA during World War II. It’s hard to lie when you’re high; in the NCAA’s own surveys on drug and alcohol use, about a quarter of players in all the major sports (football, baseball, basketball and hockey) admit to using the drug in polls they conducted in 2001. The number may be rising: the USA reported that positive tests tripled between 2008-2009 and 2009-2010. In another article Steve Wieberg of the USA Today reported that marijuana accounted for 15 of 38 positive drug tests at NCAA championships.

Enforcement, however, is lax. In reality the NCAA only tests about 4% of athletes, 1 in 22.  The tests are fairly easy to beat, even without a whizzinator. One in fall camp, administered to no more than 15 to 18 players, and another in a bowl game. where, according to regulations “student-athletes may be selected on the basis of playing time, positions and/or an NCAA-approved random selection.” Student-athletes are drug tested through urinalysis, and the NCAA handbook specifies, “If your institution sponsors football, 18 football student-athletes plus eight student-athletes from one additional sport will be randomly selected for drug testing.”  The random selection is one loophole; one way to beat the test is to provide a sample from a clean-living teammate, and the Ducks still have a few of those. Mark Asper, for example, is married with two children, a former Mormon missionary. In all, college football’s governing body tests and suspends players for the following substances:

Stimulants (e.g., cocaine, amphetamines, ephedrine and Ecstasy) Anabolic Agents (e.g., anabolic steroids, andro, boldenone, nandrolone and THG) Diuretics Street drugs (e.g., heroin and marijuana) Urine manipulators and masking agents Although the NCAA tests for all banned drug classes at its Division I championships, NCAA Division I out-of-competition (year-round) drug testing is for anabolic agents, diuretics, peptide hormones, urine manipulators, masking agents and ephedrine only.

But odds are pretty good for beating or avoiding the test. Steve Wieberg of the USA Today reported, “Though more than 241,000 athletes in Divisions I and II are subject to random year-round testing under the current NCAA program, only approximately 11,000 a year actually are screened — if none have their name pulled more than once.”

Why all the fuss over a little weed? One researcher, Dr. Gary Wadler, a New York University School of Medicine professor and lead author of the book “Drugs and the Athlete,” identifies the following effects of marijuana on athletic performance:

Impairs skills requiring eye-hand coordination and a fast reaction time
Reduces motor coordination, tracking ability and perceptual accuracy
Impairs concentration, and time appears to move more slowly
Skill impairment may last up to 24 to 36 hours after usage
Reduces maximal exercise capacity resulting in increased fatiguability

What are the short-term adverse health effects of marijuana?

Memory and learning problems
Difficulty concentrating
Perception distortions involving vision, sound, touch and time
Thinking and problem-solving difficulties
Increased heart rate and drop in blood pressure
Sudden feelings of anxiety, including panic attacks, and paranoia
Runny nose, sore throat, wheezing

What are the long-term adverse health effects of marijuana?
“Because marijuana users often inhale the unfiltered smoke deeply and then hold it in their lungs as long as possible, chronic marijuana use may play a role in the development of chronic respiratory problems,” says Wadler. Animal studies have suggested that THC may adversely affect the immune system. Additionally, long-term use has been associated with motivational problems including apathy, impaired judgment, loss of ambition and an inability to carry out long-term plans.

This may be an updated, medicalized version of reefer madness; Duck fans can attest that there is nothing wrong with Cliff Harris’ motor coordination or reaction time. Athletes say they like pot because they enjoy the high. It helps them relax, and works as a pain reliever. The most outspoken defender of right-to-use among prominent athletes is Mark Stepnoski, former All-Pro center and 12-year NFL veteran with the Cowboys and Oilers, who spoke at the 2009 NORML convention as a marijuana legalization advocate. In separate interviews with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” moderator Bob Ley and the magazine High Times, Stepnoski indicated that he used the drug all throughout his NFL career. “To me it’s all about responsibility,” he told writer Peter Gorman, “There’s a time and a place for everything.” Stepnoski went on to say he never smoked the night before games, and that he beat testing by quitting five weeks before training camp. Some excerpts from his ESPN interview:

“It never prevented me from accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.”

“I tried to be very serious about the game. I tried to be a professional and approached it with a workman-like attitude. I think that helped contribute to
the longevity of my career.”

“Why do I do it? Because I enjoy its effects. You know, I — why does anybody use any mind-altering substance, you know, because they like the way it makes them feel.”

One little-discussed effect of marijuana is that it becomes a dividing line on teams. Stepnoski told Gorman, a writer for High Times, “I think it’s like in normal life.  If you like to smoke, you’ll hang out with people who like to smoke. As far as the whole team, I don’t know. There are 53 guys on a team, and some of those guys you don’t know very well at all. You certainly don’t hang out with all of them socially. But birds of a feather hang together, so it’s something you do with your friends.”

Another self-admitted former user, Heisman Trophy winner Rahsaan Salaam, gave Ley a different testimony, “Marijuana makes you lazy” he said.  “Makes you not want to get up and work out. It makes you not motivated. It doesn’t allow you to have positive thoughts.”  Salaam may be speaking out of bitterness, though. He was a notorious bust in the NFL after a brilliant college career.

No one would say this aloud, but Eugene has a nation-wide reputation as 4-20 friendly town. Odd as it sounds, that culture and environment becomes a factor in the recruiting of some players. They like the relaxed atmosphere and the acceptance, the unspoken promise that we’re cool out here about casual use of marijuana.

For players with NFL aspirations, however, it might not be so cool. They test for grass at the NFL combine, and not the kind Les Miles eats. In the 2010 and 2009 combines Florida sensation Percy Harvin and North Carolina receiver Brandon Tate tested positive for the drug. Two years ago, Tate went in the third round to New England. Last year Minnesota picked Harvin in the first round.  Attitudes seem to be changing, although marijuana has been a factor in the draft evaluations of some players. Don Banks of interviewed scouts and coaches on the subject for a story in 2010, and one coach told him, “Marijuana use is almost epidemic, with more guys having tested positive for marijuana at some point in their college background than I can ever remember,” said a longtime team personnel man. “It’s almost as if we are having to figure out a new way to evaluate it as part of the character and background report, because it’s so prevalent. There’re enough instances of it that it’s hard to know how to set your board. You can’t throw out that many guys. You have to go case-by-case and do your homework on them.”

About a third of incoming players test positive, Banks reported. Another coach told him, “It’s a matter of figuring out which ones smoke, and which ones have to smoke, because they really [are addicted],” another head coach said. “It’s like the drinking issue. You want to know if a guy drinks, or if he has a drinking problem. You’re trying to find out and make that distinction with some guys.” But NFL attitudes may be changing. Coaches and GMs can’t help but notice that top players like Harvin and Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson perform at the highest level of the game despite a reputation for using weed.

One thing that isn’t changing, however, is the official stance of the NCAA. They group marijuana with heroin and steroids, and they’re serious about it. Players who get caught are suspended and lose a year. There’s an appeals process, but with the NCAA as judge and jury, the athletes and teams almost always lose.

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