Burn It Down

Gregory Shamus

The NCAA doesn't know what's best and it doesn't care. It is going to wrest control away from the lives of its student athletes no matter what, all under the guise of amateurism.

Because obviously I was going to lead this post off with Peter Tosh.

My name is Zach and I smoked some pot in college.  Shocking, I know.  Who would have thought a wayward philosophy major with anxiety issues would dabble with marijuana?

It wasn't always a great decision.  There were times when my academic performance suffered, and realize now that a lot of the reason I was doing it was to overcompensate for other things in my life that I struggled to deal with properly.  Also, I was a college kid in Ann Arbor, so it wasn't like I had to search far and wide to find something green to smoke.

--

Mitch McGary smoked some pot in college too.  He says he did it just once (he says), a couple weeks before the drug test that has ultimately cost him his eligibility.  I don't know if this is a white lie, but I'm going to venture a guess that the odds of someone getting busted by a drug test after their first time smoking are probably small enough that we can safely assume this wasn't his first time.  Not that this matters much at all.

At the end of the day, rules are rules.  When Ohio State dealt with its tattoo for merchandise scandal most rational adults could sort out all of the issues.  Yes, what the players did was defined in the rule book as wrong, and they knowingly broke those rules before their coach knowingly covered those violations up to gain a competitive advantage over other schools that were following those rules dutifully.  The rule was bunk, but we don't get to pick and choose which ones we follow.  When Mitch took that hit he opened the door to this.  He has also taken responsibility for what he did (from the official press release):

"I take full responsibility for this poor choice and want to apologize to everyone, especially those I have grown close to during my fabulous two years at the University of Michigan.

Mitch McGary, an "amateur" athlete that the NCAA doesn't trust to do just about anything without some sort of supervision or regulation just did one of the most responsible, adult things he could have done: he took responsibility for his actions.

--

This isn't about Mitch, and it's not about my own history as someone who has been on the business end of a joint or two in my life.

This is about the NCAA.  The institution that finds itself increasingly under siege from all sides.  Between the EA Sports likeness rights lawsuit, CAPA, and the ever expanding profit margins of major college sports, the NCAA isn't able to hide behind the guise of "amateurism" any longer because the word — a misnomer going on two decades at least — is such a hollow shell of an ideal that it is cracking and crumbling under all this increased pressure.  Amateurism is anymore just something that the NCAA invokes as a cover-all counter argument in the same way a child repeats "nuh uh" when he refuses to accept the reality of what you are saying to him.

Amateurism has been a great shield for the NCAA for years.  It has allowed the economics of college sports to grow to astronomical proportions while still beating the athletes themselves over the head with the same heavy handed paternalism that has existed in college sports for 100 years.  Athletes still have little to no rights.  Most scholarships are granted on a year-to-year basis and can be revoked at any time for almost any reason.  Medical care for athletes is not required and can dry up quickly once a player leaves the program (either by choice or after being forced out).  Coaches are free to bolt their team at any time for a better job and better payment, but a player wanting to pursue his education elsewhere must have his list of potential transfer schools signed off on and he in most cases must sit out a year (potentially losing a valuable season of eligibility) to do so.  Even the NCAA's recent decision to lift portion size restrictions smacks of hypocrisy and unfairness.  Suits and bowl execs get rich on the backs of 200 and 300 pound college athletes that can't even go back for seconds in the buffet line without having to self report violations, and this policy wasn't overturned until this month.

Yes, one of the biggest issues with the NCAA's treatment of its student athletes in revenue generating sports is about fairness and compensation for work done.  The NCAA making millions of dollars off the backs of college kids shoved into 40-60 hour a week practice schedules that don't even include school work and then having the gall to claim that those kids are students first is a slap in the face to logic and reason.  This doesn't stop the NCAA, which doubles down on stupid and poorly-executed when it comes to just about everything.   "This isn't about money" say the guys with high six figure salaries who wag their finger at college kids for wanting a few extra bucks a week to buy food.

Ultimately, the money is a symptom of something bigger.  The NCAA is less from a governing body overseeing the athletic pursuits of college athletes and more the crazed helicopter parent of some pageant kid.  The NCAA wields its authority completely and recklessly.  It talks down to a bunch of 18-23 year old college athletes telling them how little they know about what is good for them while simultaneously fleecing them to pay for even greater executive salaries — Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, made 1.7 million dollars in 2011 — and bloated athletic departments necessary to navigate the hedge-mazes of red tape the institution has built to control nearly every aspect of these players lives.  And the NCAA does all of this with a patronizing smile on its face, speaking in soothing tones to college kids and saying "it's alright, son. I know what is best for you and I'll surely look out for your interests."

This is about choice.  Mitch McGary didn't have one.  When it came time to decide whether to return to school or not his choice was made for him.  The NCAA thinks marijuana is bad for its student athletes, and to protect them from themselves it has decided that a year away from the game will be enough time for that student to realize the error of his ways.

"If it had been a Michigan test, I would've been suspended three games and possibly thought about coming back," McGary said. "I don't have the greatest circumstances to leave right now [due to the injury]. I feel I'm ready, but this pushed it overboard.

"I don't think the penalty fits the crime. I think one year is overdoing it a little bit."

Don't mind the fact that the tide of public opinion on marijuana has shifted massively over the past couple decades, and that an institution that really cares about the student athletes whose best interests it purports to have in mind would be much more concerned about educating and rehabilitating students that have become involved with drugs and alcohol rather than throwing draconian punishments at them.

Nope, the NCAA, like your own father, knows best.

It is time to burn the whole thing down.  It has been time for at least a decade, if not longer.  Thankfully, the NCAA doesn't look to be able to hide behind its clever buzzwords and feigned concern for the labor it exploits.  Change is coming, sooner or later.

That change isn't soon enough for Mitch McGary, an adult that made a mistake and had the book thrown at him* by an organization that increasingly acts like the town from Footloose when confronted by anything other than good clean enjoyment of sports for sports sake.  Just don't mind all the checks those suits are cashing in between bursts of moral outrage at the idea of forsaking the lofty principle of "amateurism".

Burn it down.  Burn the whole thing down.

*(From Tim Marchman's article at Deadspin, adding to the gross hypocrisy of the NCAA : "Adding to the absurdity, the NCAA recently announced that, among other policy changes, it would be halving the suspension for "street drugs," so that McGary would have been subject to a penalty even the NCAA thinks is draconian. Understandably enough, he's going pro."  McGary appealed this decision to enforce the whole year and was told that since he broke the rules under the old policy that he is held to that punishment that the NCAA also just decided was too harsh.  You can't make this crap up, I swear..)

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