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Miller: Rethinking the NCAA’s stance on recreational drugs

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As the first ever College Football Playoff championship game unfolded Monday night at AT&T Stadium, I found myself thinking not of the players on the field — not an easy thing to do with the abundance of elite athletes on both sides — but of one who didn’t even make the trip.

Yes, despite the awesome action on an equally awesome stage, I could not help but feel for Oregon receiver Darren Carrington, who was suspended for the game late last week after reportedly failing an NCAA-mandated drug test prior to the Ducks’ CFB semifinal romp over Florida State. While Carrington’s absence was not the only reason Oregon’s blitzkrieg attack faltered, he certainly might have made things easier for quarterback Marcus Mariota, who had connected with the redshirt freshman 14 times for 291 yards and three touchdowns in their last two outings.

Regardless of what impact he might have had on the outcome of the contest, the bottom line is that Carrington was barred from participating in the most anticipated football game in a generation for taking a drug that does not provide an athlete with a competitive advantage on the field and whose criminalization is being questioned with increasing frequency across the nation. It would have been an experience he carried for a long time, but he had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help usher in a new era of college football.

Carrington was purportedly popped for marijuana, a substance banned by the NCAA since the beginning of its drug testing program in the mid-1980s. In fact, the powers that be in collegiate athletics are so intent on busting their athletes for pot usage that the threshold necessary to trigger a positive test was recently lowered to five nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) — for comparison, the new NFL standard announced in September is 35 ng/ml. To be fair, it should be noted that the NCAA also decreased the first-time punishment for a street drug violation from a full season to a half season or more, depending on the circumstances.

Nevertheless, I have a few issues with Carrington’s punishment and, more generally, the NCAA’s list of banned substances and its overall drug testing policy.

1) The NCAA does not have a legitimate need to know whether or not its athletes are using recreational drugs. The NCAA’s chief goals should be the facilitation of fair competition between its members, not regulating the lives and choices of its athletes. The activities that collegiate athletes involve themselves in on their own time — drug-related or otherwise — are not the business of the member institution or the NCAA.

Though traditionalists might argue that the use of marijuana, cocaine, PCP, etc. somehow erodes the principles of collegiate sports (thus giving the NCAA a pretense to test for such substances), it seems to me that these activities do not fall within what should be the NCAA’s limited purview. Plus, recreational drug use has absolutely nothing to do with the ever-changing concept of ‘amateurism,’ and thus should not be governed by NCAA authority.

2) The NCAA should not test for substances that have not been scientifically proven to enhance athletic performance. Although there is some anecdotal evidence that marijuana ingestion may improve athletic performance by relaxing the user and possibly allowing for greater mental clarity, the scientific evidence indicates that marijuana use actually impairs sports performance. According to Dr. Gary Wadler, who co-wrote the book “Drugs and the Athlete,” marijuana “has no performance-enhancing potential” because it negatively impacts muscular coordination, reaction time, concentration and “maximal exercise capacity.”

Because marijuana has not been shown to boost athletic performance, the NCAA has no reason to test its athletes for it or any other substance that cannot be definitively tied to increased physical output. Its insistence on doing so only reinforces the notion that the organization seeks to regulate and control the behavior of its athletes at every corner.

3) The NCAA has violated Carrington’s right to privacy by forcing him to submit to drug testing for recreational substances. To be sure, the NCAA has a compelling interest in testing for performance enhancing drugs, such as EPO, anabolic steroids and stimulants such as Adderall (because their use may impact standards of fair competition). But while I believe it is appropriate for the NCAA to mandate drug testing (which in and of itself violates the privacy of the athlete) for these particular drugs, searching for traces of recreational and other non-performance enhancers violates Carrington’s right under Section 9 of the Oregon Constitution to “be secure in [his person]…against unreasonable search…” (emphasis added). In my opinion, the NCAA’s “search” for marijuana was indeed “unreasonable” and an invasion of the athlete’s privacy because it has no legitimate purpose for testing for the substance.

Cameron Miller has little tolerance for the NCAA smoking gun, but tolerates those who smoke the reefer. Contact him at cmiller6 ‘at’ stanford.edu to find out more.

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Cameron Miller is a sports desk editor for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 246 and is the men's and women's golf writer. He also writes on NCAA-related matters. Cameron is also a Stanford student-athlete, competing on the cross country and track and field teams. He is originally from Bakersfield, California, but spends most of his time away from the Farm on the state's Central Coast. Contact him at [email protected]