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Reefer Madness: Should Football Teams Police Pot?

Charlie minds if you do a J, Dude. But is it really the football team's business what players do in the offseason?

Charlie Strong is probably not taking a quick hit in this picture from the BYU game, even if he could have used it.
Charlie Strong is probably not taking a quick hit in this picture from the BYU game, even if he could have used it.
Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Strong has brought a particularly firm brand of discipline to the 40 Acres and the Texas Longhorns.

Horns fans have watched as players, including some projected starters, have been suspended and even wholly booted from the team for violating Strong's Core Values. Generally, these rules have been well received by the fanbase and the apparent consistency of consequences for violations, irrespective of the potential gameday ramifications, has been hailed with praise.

"Charlie means business," many of us say.

However, while all participants in the following discussion agreed that Strong's handling of player discipline was mostly on track, there was some concern about a singular issue: That of marijuana use apparently being considered a violation on par with other, far more destructive, actions prohibited by the Core Values.

Given that the third quarter tailspin and general offensive ineptitude against BYU were almost certainly aided by the absence of both starting offensive tackles and the team's most explosive playmaker (names reserved so as not to unfairly assume their association with the subject matter), the question occurs to some: Supposing hypothetically that the sole reason important players are being suspended is for pot use, how sure are we that restricting and testing for pot is helping the team?

Before my fellow contributors and I weigh in, a few notes to consider:

  • We are not going to debate whether marijuana, or any other substance, should remain illegal. That's a question outside the rules of discussion for this blog. Both sides of the debate accept the current situation.
  • We do not know Charlie Strong's exact policies regarding how suspensions and dismissals are determined. Maybe Chuck gives you six chances to pass a drug test before it becomes an issue, or maybe he suspends you for quoting Lil' Wayne on your Facebook page. We just don't know that, and we don't pretend to know.
  • We are not concerned with any particular case of suspension or dismissal of any player. We will not speculate as to the reason for their suspensions and any details about a particular case are not relevant to the discussion. All examples we consider are purely hypothetical.
  • Even the NCAA agrees that pot and other street drugs are not considered performance enhancers, so testing is not related to promoting fair play.

Let's get started

Horn Brain:
Thanks for making time for this discussion, everyone. The question before us today is one of broad scope, generally, but I would like to focus on its football-related aspects. We are not interested in whether pot should be illegal or the effectiveness of the War on Drugs. We are also not interested in the specific cases of any suspended players. We are interested only in whether it makes sense for Charlie Strong to suspend and dismiss players solely for failing a test for pot or, put another way: Should pot be included under the "No Drugs" core value?

My answer is no. I have two main objections, one moral and one practical. My moral objection is that pot is not inherently dangerous compared to other legal substances and activities (alcohol comes to mind), nor does it enhance performance, and therefore pot use should not be the concern of the football team unless it becomes a distraction from academics, attitude, or performance on the field. Just like we don't test underage players for alcohol (to my knowledge), we shouldn't test anyone for pot. There are numerous activities that are illegal that the football team does not police. Should we put breathalyzer locks on every player's car so that they can't drink and drive because a few of them drink and drive? Should we put GPS on every player's car and suspend them one game for every four moving violations, ticketed or not? I think that testing for an athletically irrelevant substance is along these lines of intrusiveness.

My practical objection is that it isn't smart to suspend players for what I'll call "responsible" pot use (pot use that occurs in conjunction with satisfactory grades, performance, attitude, and effort). If we have a hypothetical player, let's call him "Sticky-Icky Williams", who is a model student athlete but is in line for the Highest-man trophy as well as the Heisman, why shoot your team in the foot by demanding that he change harmless behavior? I fully believe that a player's pot use could be an issue if he is struggling, but if not, who cares? Let's make sure as much of our talent gets on the field as possible.

Michael Pelech:
I think having a "no marijuana use" in Strong's core values is a good rule, and a fair rule. Charlie Strong's core values, at least as far as they appear to me, are a combination of things he views to be impediments to young men becoming good men, and he views good men as critical to the success of a football team.

And while some of the core values are obvious (a player who assaults women doesn't belong in his locker room), pot's inclusion in "no drugs" is a little grayer. While I don't know if its use is a serious impediment to a football player's success (is Sticky-Icky Williams the exception to the rule, or is his case common?), Charlie Strong seems to think so, and I won't argue with him on that.

I see this rule being a fair inclusion to the bigger picture. There's nothing in the core values that somebody shouldn't be able to live without. If you're committed to the team, you'll commit to the rules, and that commitment looks like it will be as important to Strong's Longhorn teams as any individual player will be. I wouldn't be surprised if repeated failed drug tests are simply symptoms of a player's lack of commitment to the team and the attitude necessary to lack that commitment, and the coaches view those infractions in that light.

Sumedh Joshi:
The question is, is marijuana use such an impediment to the success of a football program that its use should be especially targeted for testing amongst the myriad other vices?  For me, the answer is no; if you have thoughts on why marijuana use is singularly bad for a football team I am open to having that discussion.  Arguably, Texas has had far more disciplinary issues related to the abuse of alcohol, and yet we are not here discussing that for the good reason that those issues are generally dealt with effectively by the justice system when necessary.  I don't see why this is any different.

Of course Strong has every right to enforce whatever rules he chooses, and the players are obligated to follow them; no arguments there.  But we can also think critically about the impact those decisions have, and in my judgement I don't see a reason to not just say "don't break the law", and then let law enforcement do its job as you focus on coaching football.  We may be otherwise cheating ourselves out of talented football players who are generally good citizens and lead productive lives.

The United States Marine Corps builds arguably the strongest teams in the world, and has done so for nearly 250 years. The way they start is by putting all the new entrants into a group, tearing them down to their base elements, and then rebuilding them from the ground up as Marines. Marine recruits are not allowed to refer to themselves as "Marines" until their initial training process is complete. It is a high honor to be referred to as "Marine" by one's drill instructors and other service members.

Many of the Corps' rules are seemingly irrelevant to the concept of being a soldier. Looking a drill instructor in the eye, for example, is a big no-no. Not looking a drill instructor in the eye has nothing -- literally nothing -- to do with being a soldier. What it does have to do with, though, is learning to follow instructions -- a skill which will win battles and keep you alive later in your Marine Corps life.

I view Coach Strong's "no pot" policy as equivalent to the Marine's "no looking at drill instructors" policy. It may have nothing to do with playing football, but it surely has to do with some longer-term goal Strong has in mind for his guys -- even if it's just as simple as "you're going to do this because I say it's a rule, and either you can play by my rules, or you can find something else to do with your time, and we'll find something else to do with your scholarship." In order to change the culture of Texas football, Coach Strong has to tear the guys down to their base elements and then rebuild them as a team.

Because Coach Strong has chosen to instill the "no pot" rule, I think he is duty-bound to bounce anybody who breaks it - and I would argue the same thing if Texas suddenly legalized pot tomorrow. I suspect Strong would be against it even if it were legal, on the grounds that if you want to be a top-tier athlete, you don't put that crap in your body.<\p>

Abram Orlansky:
I certainly agree with Sumedh's general point that including pot in your zero-tolerance drug policy but not doing the same for alcohol seems inconsistent -- unless, of course, it does matter to Strong that marijuana is illegal. Assuming for a moment that's the case, and that Strong simply wishes to keep his players out of trouble with the law, I have no problem with the policy. Yes, underage drinking is also illegal; but it is nevertheless true that college kids are far more likely to have legal issues if caught with pot than with booze.  Given Coach Strong's general approach that his goal is to help make his players into solid young men, he likely understands that a drug charge will go much further in ruining one's life than being suspended for a couple of football games.

That's why I don't actually think the "let the law handle it" approach is in line with Strong's style. If he can provide a kind of "warning shot" to kids, I like that he wants to do that. He seems to be saying "Whatever you think about the law, breaking it can ruin your life. I will show you a small fraction of the potential consequences of your actions by taking football away from you, and you need to understand that continuing to break the law -- unreasonable though said law may be -- will have far worse consequences for you."

If, on the other hand, he simply dislikes marijuana use and doesn't care whether it's illegal, I don't feel like I know enough about his thought process to judge it.  He may have seen kids lose focus and ambition as their pot use increased, and so he reasonably decided to make it a priority. Or, he may simply be taking a moralistic tack that makes no sense to me.

Horn Brain:
So at least one of you squares seems to agree that the rule makes no sense on its own, but he also claims that it's really a sort of loyalty/commitment test designed to weed out (yup) those players who won't follow rules. You'd make a fine Aggie, Neidermeyer (woops, didn't mean to use your real name). My response stands on my practical argument against testing for pot: What's so special about arbitrary rules (as opposed to sensible ones) that they justify the cost of losing player's availability? Can't we just implement the sensible rules like real hardasses and get the same effect? Even if your answer is no, why not pick the set of arbitrary rules least likely to conflict with student lifestyles on campus, thus maximizing the availability of your players? It's just being smart!

Those of you that justify the rule seem to think that it's in the players' benefit to not get arrested for pot. Fine. I'm all for punishing kids who get caught doing illegal things. Isn't that what we do when a player gets a DUI? None of this is in any way a justification for actively testing players for non-performance related drugs (which I maintain is the equivalent of installing breathalyzer locks in everyone's car). If they get caught, they can be punished, but that doesn't mean we have to go looking for ways to get our own players in trouble!

Abram brings up the only corollary to this point I think actually tries to rationalize the rule: Charlie wants to try to intervene in these kids' lives before they get caught by cops and perhaps suffer more serious consequences. I agree that this is a noble cause. I disagree, however, that it justifies anything more than mentorship on avoiding drugs, staying out of trouble, etc. The idea that in order to prevent these kids from screwing up means that they have to be drug tested again raises the question: What's your stance on breathalyzer locks on cars? Should all UT students be drug tested? We could prevent so many pot tickets! Think of the children!

I agree with Sumedh. We have much more of a problem with alcohol than pot at UT, based on the past few years of police blotter reports. The rule seems unnecessary.

Michael Pelech:
I certainly don't think it's arbitrarily picking a behavior or choice, regardless of its legality (though I believe it plays some role in the choice of rule), I'm sure the rule is based plenty on Strong's 30 years of whatever of coaching. And while I can't say for sure what that decision looks like, I wouldn't be surprised if the choice of that rule is the result of many players in his programs not maximizing their opportunities or their roles on his teams, and pot use has some causative or correlative role in that situation, in Charlie's view.

"Charlie wants to try to intervene in these kids' lives before they get caught by cops and perhaps suffer more serious consequences." Agreed, but I'm not convinced he views an arrest as the real consequence here. Charlie Strong's goal isn't to keep his players out of prison, it's to make them better men. And with that goal in mind, his objectives are to hold his players to a higher standard, and have actual accountability to the rules. No point in having a standard if it's not enforced, and enforcement here includes testing, especially if you've already tripped up.

Sumedh Joshi:
I actually find Abram's argument rather persuasive -- independent of what anyone thinks about marijuana use, having a drug charge on your record is going to significantly disrupt your plans to play in the NFL.  This should be especially clear given what is happening to Josh Gordon.  As Abram says, far preferable to get an in-house reality check than to have to awkwardly explain to an NFL GM why you thought it was a good idea to put your future in the hands of @ChadBroChill at that West Campus frat party who tweeted pictures of you ripping a bong for the world to see.  I may be coming around to the view that having a team policy for drug use might be in the best interest of everyone involved, but I don't think I can get behind kicking players off of the team for one (or several) positive drug tests alone, if their record is otherwise positive.  That may be a hypothetical that never materializes, but we're talking philosophy here.

Besides that, I don't find comparisons to the Marine Corps to be particularly informative, nor do I agree that enforcement here absolutely has to include testing, because then we get into problematic situations with GPS devices and breathalyzer locks.  Abram's argument for drug testing I'm sold on; marijuana and alcohol are substantively different because of public perception, and managing your public perception is a large part of becoming a professional athlete.  Teaching that (while still not risking totally destroying an athlete's future by throwing them to the justice system) is well within the purview of a head coaching job.  At the risk of losing what little credibility I have in future arguments, I think I may be coming around to agree with Charlie Strong.

From the original missive: "We are interested only in whether it makes sense for Charlie Strong to suspend and dismiss players solely for failing a test for pot or, put another way, should pot be included under the "No Drugs" core value."

  • Is pot a drug?
  • Is pot illegal (in the locale in question)?
  • Does pot use improve one's ability to play football?
  • Is the concept of a "core value" limited to the letter of the law, or should the spirit of the law be taken into account when make judgments based on said law?

If you don't suspend and/or dismiss players caught smoking pot, then the message you are sending is that some rules are okay to break -- that they are not, in fact, rules but are more akin to guidelines. I believe Strong's attitude is that the young men in his charge are not sufficiently equipped yet -- due to lack of discipline in the previous regime, most likely -- to correctly interpret which rules are rules and which rules are guidelines. The only sensible response is to treat them all as rules and react accordingly when one of them is broken.

Abram Orlansky:
adt2, that argument is fine as far as it goes -- rules are rules and if you start making them flexible, especially with kids, they will soon become totally meaningless.  But I think the question is more fundamental: should the "No Drugs" core pillar be as simple as that, or should it be something like "No Hard Drugs," or "No Schedule I Narcotics?" Of course, the problem with a "core value" is it can't be something like that, because it's inherently equivocal and seems to encourage marijuana use by omission. Therefore, the question is whether some other "core value" should replace "No Drugs," and put the team's drug policy into a more nuanced behavioral handbook or something like that. If it were me, I'd have a zero-tolerance policy for anything harder than pot, and a three-strikes policy for pot on the theory that there's a difference between dabbling and making it your favorite hobby.  The latter is more likely to hurt the team.

But the question you seem to be setting up and knocking down with aplomb is: if we accept that it IS the rule, should it be enforced? Well, obviously. If you're going to lead a bunch of college kids, you have to have their respect. Selective enforcement or a complete lack of enforcement of rules is an easy way to kill your credibility with any group, and especially a group with such a black-and-white worldview as college kids tend to have.  But again: not the question.

The one thing I'll add to Sumedh's very kind (and very wise) agreement with me is: it's not just pro football.  The vast majority of college football players will not play in the NFL, nor will they even get a tryout. A drug charge, or any experience in the legal system, can hurt you in any post-college search for employment. And unfortunately, that is extra true for young men of color -- many kids who play football at Texas are African American, and their job prospects plummet far more than white kids with a drug charge.  Of course, this entire part of the discussion about Strong's motivation to send kids a message before they get into the criminal justice system is based on an assumed motivation on his part, the validity of which I can't speak to.

I think we are arguing two different questions here: whether it makes sense for Strong to suspend/dismiss players for testing positive for pot, and whether pot should be included in the "no drugs' core value. The question was put forth as a single issue, but I don't think it is.

I think we're all in reasonable agreement that it makes sense for him to suspend/dismiss players, since he has to enforce the rules he set forth in order to maintain credibility.

The second question is trickier to answer. I'm in the camp that says pot is still illegal and therefore should be included in the core value - but I'm also over 40 and kinda stuffy. As I mentioned elsewhere, the younger folks among us tend toward the "that's a stupid rule, so it shouldn't cost me anything if I break it" argument, whereas I think folks my age tend toward the "a rule is a rule and if it doesn't cost you anything when you break it then you're missing the point of a rule" argument.

[At this point there was an opportunity for anyone who would like to offer a closing statement. -HB]

Horn Brain:
I think you're all patting yourselves on the back for being good guys and looking out for the kids, when you're really not being consistent. Why does no one care about avoiding DUIs, which are more common than pot offenses and far more deadly, enough to implement a proactive approach to curtailing it?

The reason is because it's ridiculous for a football team to police activity unrelated to football. Saying that everything illegal must be covered under the core values is obviously myopic (speeding tickets? J walking?). Absolutely mentor the students, tell them to avoid drugs and other sources of trouble, but the idea to drug test them is as ridiculous as breathalyzer locks in cars, and if it wasn't already standard operating procedure you'd all think so to. The fact that these are young people does not give us an excuse to invade their personal lives.

Abram Orlansky:
I know it reveals a high degree of inconsistency and cognitive dissonance, but while I stand by my general point that I understand Strong's position and actions, HB, you have actually just succinctly summed up my heart-of-hearts' feelings on the issue.

Alcohol does not equal pot. Alcohol is legal for a huge percentage of the population. Pot is legal for zero percent of the population (of Texas, anyway). Just because you think it's a silly law doesn't make it any less of a law. To say otherwise is youthful energy misspent. You're missing the point entirely by continuing to focus on whether pot = DUI.

That being said, I would have no problem with DUI being on the list of core values. But I think you pick the battles you can win, and Charlie know he's not going to catch a lot of flack over this one.

And we're done

So there's our little chat. Have fun civilly and productively discussing this in the comments and remember, whatever you think, that's just like, uh... your opinion, man.