When the University of Oregon takes the field against Ohio State in college football’s national championship game Monday night, two of the Ducks’ key players won’t be there.
Darren Carrington, one of Oregon’s leading wide receivers, and Ayele Forde, a key special teams contributor, were suspended this weekend when they failed NCAA-administered drug tests at last weekend’s Rose Bowl, which served as a semifinal in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Privacy laws prevent schools and the NCAA from confirming the reasons for the suspensions, but multiple outlets have reported that Carrington and Forde’s suspensions are the result of positive tests for marijuana.
It’s reasonable to criticize Carrington and Forde for failing the tests. The NCAA tests athletes only at postseason events, so the players should have known they were coming. But Carrington and Forde’s unfortunate cases, existing as they do under the NCAA’s drug policy and changing societal views of marijuana, should also raise questions about the NCAA’s policy itself.
Set aside the fact that recreational marijuana use is now legal in Oregon and other states, or that medical marijuana is now legal in more than 20 states. The NCAA, like other sports leagues, still lists marijuana as a banned substance, and so even players in jurisdictions where weed is legal can’t toke up when they want to.
Still, the NCAA’s policy seems outdated, inconsistent, and probably ineffective, to say the least. As USA Today’s Dan Wolken reported Saturday, the NCAA’s testing and punishment policy is wildly inconsistent. It leaves testing largely up to schools for most of the year, with the NCAA stepping in only at postseason events like bowl games and the NCAA Tournament. And once it does, its punishments are far more severe. While Oregon requires three positive tests before a suspension is triggered — it focuses on “education and support” before that, UO’s athletic director Rob Mullens told Wolken — a single positive in an NCAA-administered test results in a half-season suspension.
There are also the NCAA’s thresholds for a positive test, which are far more strict than other sports leagues. The NCAA’s threshold for a positive is five nanograms of THC per millimeter of blood, according to Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel. That is three times stricter than the NFL’s old drug policy (15 nanograms), seven times more stringent than the NFL’s current policy, and even more harsh when compared to Major League Baseball’s (50 nanograms) and the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (150 nanograms) policies. As Thamel noted, the NCAA’s threshold is 10 times stricter than the 50 nanogram threshold used for commercial airline pilots.
The major question, though, is why the NCAA tests at all. Marijuana isn’t a performance-enhancing substance for athletes. And even aside from that, it’s unclear whether drug testing has a sizable deterrent effect on drug use. Surveys of students and some academic research have suggested it isn’t, with illicit drugs like marijuana and performance-enhancers alike. Some experts have posited that an approach similar to Oregon’s “education and support” idea is a more effective means of preventing use. It’s not like NCAA athletes are avoiding marijuana use: recent surveys show that 22.6 percent of athletes admitted to using it in the past year. That is roughly the same percentage that reported using marijuana before NCAA testing began, suggesting it has had little effect. More likely, athletes simply avoid using it around NCAA testing time.
Recent history of NCAA testing, meanwhile, suggests that the NCAA’s policies could also be counterproductive to its supposed broader mission. As Wolken noted, University of Memphis basketball player Andre Allen never returned to the team after testing positive for marijuana before the 2008 Final Four, and University of Michigan basketball player Mitch McGary declared for the NBA Draft after testing positive at last year’s NCAA Tournament (McGary was already considering declaring, but the positive test and looming suspension no doubt contributed to his decision to leave). Not all athletes leave teams or schools after testing positive, of course, but given that the NCAA says its mission is to educate athletes, isn’t it worth asking whether a policy that may be pushing them off the court or field and potentially out of school is actually working in concert with that goal?
Changing societal norms around marijuana have led to discussions in the NFL and other leagues about how to address marijuana use among players, and, confronted with major questions this season thanks to Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon’s marijuana case, the NFL made changes to its policy, raising the threshold and attempting to clarify its testing procedure. A similar reaction from the NCAA won’t get Carrington and Forde on the field for tonight’s national title game. But it might lead to a more sensible, and (if it actually cares about curbing marijuana use) a more effective, NCAA policy in the future.