|Four of Gary Patterson's TCU players were caught selling pot in a campus-wide drug bust. (US Presswire)|
Not too long ago, I was having coffee with the athletics director at a BCS school and we began talking about some of his biggest challenges. That's when he said:
"The marijuana situation is the worst I've ever seen it."
If you read only the headlines, it's pretty clear that football players testing positive for marijuana or getting busted for possession is not rare. Georgia returns 10 of 11 starters from the No. 5 defense in the nation. But at least two of those starters -- defensive backs Branden Smith and Bacarri Rambo -- are expected to miss at least one game this season due to marijuana issues.
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So what if college players smoke a lot of pot?
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ESPN.com recently spoke to 19 people who either played at Oregon or had some affiliation with the school or the football program. Based on those interviews, the story concluded that between 40-60 percent of Oregon players in recent years have used marijuana. School officials, including coach Chip Kelly, deny that marijuana use is that widespread at Oregon.
"If we had that many kids doing it, we wouldn't be 34-6," said Kelly, citing Oregon's record in his three years as head coach.
Four TCU football players were caught in a campus-wide drug bust that netted 17 arrests last February.
The list could go on and on, but two questions must be asked here:
How big of a problem is marijuana use in college football?
Or it is really a problem at all? If a lot of football players are using marijuana, does anybody outside of the adults who work at the school really care?
What makes this a tough issue to quantify is that the rules are all over the place. Our Brett McMurphy did some digging around and discovered that Oregon recently changed its penalties for testing positive for marijuana. In 2010, players would be kicked off the team after the third positive drug test. Now it takes four positives before you get the gate.
McMurphy also found Oregon was one of 17 BCS schools that allow four positives before dismissal.
Contrast that to Georgia, which is one of only two SEC schools (Kentucky is the other) that levies a one-game suspension and mandatory counseling for the first positive test. A second positive test results in a four-game suspension. The third positive test results in dismissal. It is one of the toughest drug policies in college athletics. The school hasn't confirmed this, but Rambo's high school coach said recently the safety could miss as many as four games this season for his second positive drug test.
On the surface, it would appear that having tougher drug-testing policies places a school at a competitive disadvantage. On Sept. 8, Georgia will play at Missouri, and Rambo probably won't be there. Missouri throws the ball really well.
Greg McGarity, the athletics director at Georgia, does not buy that argument.
"First of all, just because a school doesn't suspend on the first positive doesn't mean the player is getting off scot-free," he said. "It's just not an apples-to-apples comparison."
McGarity concedes that some fans in the ultra-competitive SEC might see it differently.
"We've had this policy in place for 17 years and it was instituted for the right reasons," McGarity said. "We have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to apologize for. At the end of the day, it is about making right choices. The intent is not to penalize. The intent is to educate. If they are going down the wrong path, we try to educate and help."
Other schools do no random drug testing because state law prohibits it. The state of Oregon, for example, requires probable cause in order to drug test.
The idea has been raised from time to time of having uniform drug-testing policies and sanctions -- if not for the entire NCAA, then at least within the same conference. The SEC has discussed it more than once but there has never been a whole lot of support for the idea.
"Nope. I can't see it," McGarity said. "These are institutional decisions and each school has to do what is right for them."
So we know college kids -- some of them athletes -- are smoking pot. No news there. It's been that way for a long, long time.
But this was news to me: April 20 is considered a holiday of sorts by frequent users of marijuana and folks who want to legalize it. A year ago at the University of Colorado, more than 10,000 people turned out to celebrate. This year, the university limited the crowd by covering the lawn with fish-smelling fertilizer.
I'm not sure what that tells us. But it tells us something.
Here is what we don't know: Is marijuana use by college athletes REALLY a problem or is it merely a generational thing?
Are the adults who run college athletics swimming against an unrelenting tide on this subject?
Are the athletes who use pot willing to risk the Russian roulette of testing because it has become such an ingrained part of their existence?
Should the schools mind their own business, or do they owe it to the kids to help them?
What if the kids don't think they need help?
"All I know is that it is tough for some of these kids to believe they can't smoke," a coach told me. "The reality is that some of them grew up watching their mother smoke it every day."