Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Foul Shots: Smoked

Mitch McGary was the breakout star of the Michigan Wolverines’ run to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship game. As a true freshman playing in his first March Madness tournament, McGary scored 21 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the third round as the Wolverines topped VCU. In the Sweet 16 matchup against top-seeded Kansas, McGary scored 25 points while bullying his way to the glass for 14 rebounds. He eventually cooled off in the National Championship game against Louisville as the Wolverines fell in a close game, 82-76. All in all, McGary averaged 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game during the tournament.

Prior to this season, McGary was listed as a preseason All-American by ESPN, but was hampered by back issues during the 2013-14 campaign, culminating in back surgery in January. He went from being a consensus lottery pick to a probable second-round pick, a position from which few NBA players have achieved long-term success. It was widely believed that McGary would return to Michigan for his junior year to attempt to improve his draft stock, and to mature as a basketball player and person.

But instead, McGary will enter the NBA Draft. Why? Because he tested positive for marijuana during the NCAA Tournament this year. As a result, he faced a one-year suspension, thanks to NCAA policy. So, understandably, McGary decided to take his chances at the next level, where he’ll probably earn a very lucrative contract.

I’m not saying that McGary should get off scot-free. He did violate the NCAA’s substance-abuse policy and also violated Michigan state law that prohibits usage of marijuana. But a one-year suspension for smoking weed? Are you kidding me? I can understand a one-year penalty for having a legitimate addiction to a hard drug like cocaine or heroin. I can understand a one-year penalty for committing (or attempting to commit) a serious crime while under the influence of any drug whatsoever. But there’s just no way that the NCAA should have a policy like this. Thankfully, they’ve changed it, as the NCAA decided on April 15 to change the rule to be a half-season suspension for a single positive test. Unfortunately, McGary failed under the old rule, and the NCAA has refused to grandfather him into the new policy.

But even a half-year is too much of a suspension. Division I college athletes are under ridiculous amounts of pressure, pressure that they’re not mentally prepared to deal with as teenagers and young adults. So, when they get really stressed out, they might do stupid stuff. I guess no one in the NCAA has ever done anything rash or stupid when they feel overcome by stress. Smoking marijuana has been medically proven to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Now, we have no way to prove that McGary smoked because he was stressed. Maybe he just wanted to get high. I doubt it was his first time smoking. But that’s really beyond the point; of all the draconian policies and rules the NCAA enforces, this might be the most ridiculous. The official classification of marijuana as a “street drug,” the same designation given to heroin, cocaine and meth, is absolutely ridiculous.

So how can the policy be improved? I think there should be some sort of penalty; again, smoking marijuana recreationally is still against the law in 48 out of 50 states. The NCAA can’t just say, “We don’t care if you violate the law,” but they also can’t say, “we take punitive measures against occasional marijuana users because we’re trying to protect what’s left of our integrity.” That’s exactly what this policy is: a desperate power play and the NCAA’s attempt to maintain a semblance of dignity amid the numerous scandals that have rocked college sports over the last decade. They’re grasping at straws, doing anything and everything that they can do to seem like everything is going according to plan.

The NCAA is supposed to prioritize the student-athletes that play the games. It’s not supposed to govern for its own self, to make examples out of those who commit minor infractions rather than to pursue larger issues and larger infractions. There’s a reason that marijuana is being decriminalized in state after state in America. There’s a reason that medical marijuana is being prescribed by doctors more and more. When I think about this situation I visualize the NCAA as a policeman, fat and tired, sighing from exasperation as he slaps handcuffs onto a harmless stoner while an uncaught serial killer watches and laughs. There are bigger problems out there, NCAA. There’s so much more you could do with your considerable resources and influence. Maybe you could start by exposing and punishing every program that pays their players instead of worrying about who’s passing a joint around in the basement of a fraternity house. Stop wasting your own time, stop wasting your athletes’ time, and get with the program. Mitch McGary is the poster child of NCAA tyranny, and it’s unfair to him and athletes across the country.

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