One of the biggest mysteries for fans is how young college students can risk losing an education and, in many cases, a lucrative professional sports career by habitual and repeated use of marijuana. From news reports around the Southeastern Conference, marijuana use seems commonplace among athletes. I have no doubt it is also rife among a portion of the regular student body as well. It is risky for any young person pursuing an education and a career. But it is the athletes who get drug tests. They know they face drug tests. They know the consequences. But they do it anyway.
I asked someone who is familiar with the ins and outs of student athletes and drugs if he could explain it to me. The explanation is disturbing for what it says about universities and their athletics departments.
It's all a big game. A dangerous game, but a game nonetheless.
In the first place, the players do not think they will get caught. They often beat the tests through a variety of stratagems, or sometimes just luck. They drink gallons of water to dilute their urine. The tests are not super-sophisticated. We aren't talking about CSI here.
But even if they do get caught, they have to get caught over and over again before suffering the consequences. In other words, they can flunk a drug test four times and only then do they face getting kicked off the team or out of school. So from the young athlete's point of view, they can use recreational drugs for a very long time without any consequences. Except possibly being suspended for a game for "violation of team rules."
Unless they run afoul of the Knoxville Police Department. NBA prospect Tyler Smith and three other basketball team members were arrested on drug and gun possession charges last week. They got stopped for speeding. Allegedly speeding down Alcoa Highway smoking dope, with guns under the front seat. In a rental car someone else rented for them.
These gentlemen are vital cogs in the money machine that is University of Tennessee sports. The facts change in each case, but at the big-money schools around the conference the overall story is the same. How do you combat the drug culture among athletes, discourage bad behavior, but still field a competitive team on which the coaches' multimillion dollar salaries, television contracts, and university facilities rest?
UT basketball coach Bruce Pearl, like any big-time college coach, is in a bind. His future, the future of his program, and the reputation of the school is on the line. But if he kicks these kids off the team, he doesn't make the NCAA tournament. Do you think the fans will applaud a principled stand? Applaud missing the tournament? Hell, they'll be screaming when he loses big to Kansas on Sunday because these guys likely won't be playing.
This isn't a problem UT can solve alone. This is a problem the entire conference needs to face. You can't be a school with a zero-tolerance policy when the other teams in the conference are looking the other way so their outlaws can play.
Universities can help disadvantaged young people get a good education and launch them into business or professional sports. They can lift them up and give them a chance at a better life. Too often these days it appears that university recruiting is not about lifting young people up, but about getting down to their level.
The conference, and especially the university presidents, need to take a hard look at the culture of big-time college sports. Recruiting has become a race to the bottom. Bending rules is rewarded; virtue is not.
Looking the other way until players find themselves in police custody is a dangerous game. It is dangerous for the young people you are supposedly trying to help. It is also a dangerous business plan to build multimillion-dollar sports empires on the backs of kids with drug and behavior problems.
If you don't believe it, ask Bruce Pearl and Mike Hamilton.