The NCAA loves to speak of how, in every decision on college athletes, it’s the student-athlete who is the primary consideration — not the billions in television money, not the millionaire coaches and boosters, not the power brokers of college sports.
The media loves to snicker and point out the hypocrisy that oozes out of every corner of big-time, big-money amateur sports. That cynicism is not entirely fair. I get that unpaid student-athletes have made coaches rich, but I also know the intensity with which the majority of college coaches care for their players, as well as the evangelistic fervor with which the true believers inside NCAA offices put their faith in the amateurism model.
But the irony and the hypocrisy of two events happening simultaneously in college sports today is just too rich to ignore.
On Friday morning, the University of Michigan announced that forward Mitch McGary was forgoing the final two years of eligibility to go to the NBA. In and of itself, this is not a shocking decision. After a back injury curtailed his sophomore year, McGary was considered a late first-/early second-round pick. Some thought he should go to the NBA and avoid a second injury-riddled college season, and others thought he should stay in school to improve his draft stock.
It’s the context of McGary’s decision that is unfortunate. After a random drug test during the NCAA tournament — the same NCAA tournament where McGary was on the bench, injured and cheering for his teammates — he tested positive for marijuana and was suspended for one year by the NCAA.
The only time the NCAA typically administers random testing for street drugs of players is during the NCAA tournament. At other times, the university administers tests according to its own drug policies. The NCAA year-round testing program may test for performance-enhancing drugs, but according to the NCAA Drug Testing Program, "stimulants and street drugs are generally not tested in NCAA year-round testing. The NCAA championship testing program" – i.e., during the NCAA tournament – "may test for all banned drug classes, and include tests for street drugs and stimulants."
McGary told Yahoo! Sports he had passed eight drug tests administered by the university in his two years there. If he had failed a university-administered test, McGary would have been suspended three games. He told Yahoo! Sports that he would have considered returning for his junior season if he had a three-game suspension instead of a one-year suspension.
At the same time Friday that the NCAA’s draconian, antiquated, unbalanced rules forced one student-athlete to leave college, a football team on the other side of Lake Michigan was voting whether to form a labor union — a vote that could be the tipping point to forever change college sports in America.
What the Northwestern football players decide should and will be seen as a big, big deal. What happened to McGary today will not, because you can only feel so much sympathy for a guy who is forced to leave college for the NBA and will likely receive millions.
But here’s how McGary’s situation is directly related to the Northwestern situation:
Even as the power brokers of college sports try to hold on to the current system by offering token reforms to its bylaws and proclaiming how professionalizing college sports would smash the system’s integrity, McGary’s one-year suspension for using a drug that’s increasingly decriminalized, even legalized in the United States further proves the point that the system’s integrity is already long gone.
Here’s what McGary’s positive marijuana test was not:
— It was not a positive drug test for a player who had played during the 2014 calendar year, or who was going to play during the NCAA tournament.
— It was not a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug. Hang around some pot smokers and see if smoking enhances any sort of performance. The NCAA admitted as much in a recent statement: "Street drugs are not performance-enhancing in nature."
— It was not a rule violation that hurt anyone — such as, say, a DUI. A few recent DUI arrests in college sports have netted far shorter suspensions than McGary’s absurd yearlong ban: Georgia linebacker Cornelius Washington was suspended two games for a 2011 DUI arrest, Alabama cornerback Geno Smith was suspended for the first game of the 2013 season after a DUI arrest, and Tyler Olander of eventual national champion UConn was suspended "indefinitely" after a DUI arrest in September 2013 — but was on the court for UConn’s season opener in November.
— The subsequent suspension was not an example of the NCAA putting the student-athlete’s interest above all else.
Here’s what it was: It was a stupid, harmless mistake by a college student.
New NCAA legislation will reduce the punishment for a positive marijuana test to half a year, but that legislation won’t go into effect in time to salvage McGary’s junior season.
So McGary’s hand is forced by an organization that claims to make every decision with the student-athlete at the center.
But it sounds to me like the NCAA, with its random drug tests and authoritarian punishment, is treating McGary like an employee instead of a student. If McGary were being suspended for PEDs, fine — that’s a question of fair competition and entirely within the NCAA’s mission as a sporting organization. But a year-long suspension for use of a street drug starts becoming a moral question, a question of something outside the ground of sport, sounds a lot more like something an employer would do than a sporting organization.
Insane NCAA rules on the behavior of student-athletes combined with universities’ fear of violating those rules have caused some head-scratching instances of schools self-reporting silly violations: The female golfer at Portland who was found to be in violation of rules for washing her car with university water, or the Oklahoma football players who ate too much pasta at a buffet and were forced to pay $3.83 to charity for their rules violation.
In both instances, the violations were self-reported, and the NCAA later stated they weren’t rules violations after all.
But the absurdity remains: In an institution where up until a couple years ago student-athletes were allowed to be provided bagels but not cream cheese, you can see how compliance offices can get a bit too cautious.
In the McGary case, I can’t imagine a sane person saying the punishment fits the crime.
But I’ll take it one step further: McGary’s punishment proves that no matter what sort of incremental reforms are taken in college sports — reducing one-year drug suspensions to half-year suspensions, or allowing the richest conferences to have more legislative autonomy, or moving toward athletic scholarships that pay the full cost of attendance — it won’t be enough.
The system needs drastic reform, not incremental reform. It might just be that the Northwestern football players end up forcing the NCAA’s hand there, just like the NCAA forced McGary’s hand.