The NCAA Does Many Things Wrong, But Shockingly, They're a Drug Policy Pioneer

By Tully Corcoran

Mark Emmert does not look like a particularly radical man, and the organization over which he presides, the NCAA, is a paper lion whose own self-interest is in preserving the illusion of its own authority.

So of all America’s institutions, the NCAA would rank low when it came to “likelihood of being at the forefront of American drug policy.”

And yet, here the NCAA is.

It was not met with great fanfare, but last year the NCAA cut in half the penalties for testing positive for marijuana and other recreational drugs. And the Associated Press reported last week that “at least one-third of the Power Five conference schools are not punishing athletes as harshly as they were 10 years ago.”

"“The change was intended to make the policy more rehabilitative,” Washington spokesman Carter Henderson told the AP."

And that, you’ll notice, lies a great philosophical distance from the attitudes behind the so-called War on Drugs.

Whatever your opinion on legalization of marijuana or other drugs, there is one thing that is of little dispute: The War on Drugs, as conceived by Richard Nixon and as executed by every president since, has not worked. It’s had no effect on the availability of street drugs or their rates of use, but it has created a massive prison population, the ripple effects of which can be felt on every street corner and feedlot in America.

Over the last 5-10 years, the humans of the world have shown signs they were ready to try something new when it came to drug policy — marijuana policy in particular. From Australia to South America to Europe, countries have decriminalized or outright legalized marijuana. Twenty-three U.S. States — plus the nation’s capital — have made weed legal under some condition or another.

"The AP analyzed policies for 57 of the 65 schools in the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences, plus Notre Dame. Of the 57 schools, 23 since 2005 have either reduced penalties or allowed an athlete to test positive more times before being suspended or dismissed. Ten schools have separate, less stringent policies addressing only marijuana infractions."

Marijuana policy is only one bite of a big pie, but it is a decent barometer of Western attitudes toward recreational drugs. And there has been growing sentiment — from the left and the right — that aggressively punitive drug policy was ineffective, and rehabilitative policy might be worth a try. It’s just that America’s institutions hadn’t seemed to buy in quite yet.

And now here comes … the NCAA? And its member institutions? Acting both independently and together?

Who are these hippies?

It should be noted that coaches have some self-interest wrapped up in seeming cool to teenagers, but the justification for institutions like the NCAA, NFL or NBA testing their athletes for recreational drugs — as opposed to performance-enhancing ones — has always been ambiguous. The NFL and NBA both introduced banned-substance lists in the 1980s, at the peak of a national drug panic. The First Lady made it her mission to get kids to “Just Say No,” and it was a time when violent crime was rising steadily, and AIDS had hit. Those are three different issues, but there was a general sense that the permissiveness of the 60s had evolved into lawlessness, and there was a great cultural pushback against anything that reminded people of hippies.

But those are all outdated fears. Violent crime in America peaked in 1993 and has declined every year since, our understanding and management of AIDS is in a much more advanced place, and recreational drug use — dangerous as it can be — is now seen as more of a personal issue than a cultural one.

It isn’t surprising that America’s sports institutions are starting to take a more practical approach to recreational drugs. It’s just that the American sports institution with the subservient participants who can’t collectively bargain the terms of their employment seems like an unlikely pioneer.