From the Department of Obvious: College Athletes Smoke Weed

A report from ESPN the Magazine alleges widespread use of marijuana within the University of Oregon's football team — especially before practices or games. Should we really be that shocked?

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Bill Nichols / AP

Nike unveils its latest uniform system for the Oregon Ducks at the Rose Bowl game on January 2, 2012 in Pasadena, California.

Perhaps you had the same reaction I did if you read the ESPN the Magazine article, “We Smoked it All,” which details the off the field marijuana-smoking habits of the Rose Bowl champion Oregon Ducks. My first thought was the famous scene from Casablanca: I’m shocked. Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”

Before you think this will be an apology for bad behavior, I’ll start by saying that yes, marijuana use is illegal; some studies have shown it to be a gateway drug; and in general, avoiding marijuana use is a good thing. But let’s go ahead and say it’s not that shocking that college athletes, even those facing the multi-million dollar pressures of bowl games and potential draft positions, kick back by using marijuana.

What is surprising is the frequency, proliferation and seeming constancy of the confessed drug use. ESPN The Magazine‘s Sam Alipour begins with a detailed scene of an Oregon football player, fresh off this year’s Rose Bowl victory, kicking back by rolling a joint. The unnamed player (there are many unnamed sources in the article, which isn’t surprising given the content) estimates that about half of the team smokes marijuana on a regular basis. The magazine also cited interviews with 19 current and former Ducks going back a decade and a half who put that number at between 40 and 60%.

(PHOTOS: Cannabis Culture)

What we might be genuinely shocked to learn is that some athletes get high before they practice or play. The article cited a study in Sports Medicine that quoted athletes saying marijuana helps them focus better (I’m very dubious of this claim), increases creativity (I’ll buy that) and decreases anxiety, fear, depression and tension (take your pick). The article does an excellent job of addressing evolving norms regarding marijuana and the difficulty in testing athletes (school have to abide by state laws, which in Oregon required probable cause).

Fantastically-detailed stories aside, what is fascinating about the article is analysis of what could drive change–the NFL. The magazine ran the article in its NFL Draft preview, and spends a decent amount of space examining the NFL’s role in this situation. For many athletes, the only downside to being caught using marijuana is a drop in their draft status, but there is an interesting catch-22 in which NFL scouts and executives assume that because so many athletes have used marijuana, they don’t believe those who claim they haven’t.

So what does all this mean? In the end, not much. We basically learn that lots of athletes, including world class players we watch on Sundays, either smoke marijuana or did so in college. What stands out was a quote from former Oregon guard Fenuki Tupou, now playing for the New Orleans Saints: “Let’s be honest,” Tupou is quoted as saying. “When you’re bored, it’s not like you’re going to read a book.”

Anyone who paid attention to college basketball this year, where Kentucky won with a horde of talented freshmen who are guaranteed to bolt for the NBA, knows that in many sports, college programs are just a weigh station on the road to a pro team. But I would hope that college students, even the great athletes, would crack a book every once in a while, if only to alleviate their boredom. This is when you’re supposed to look at me and say, “Yeah right, and I assume some of them smoke weed, too.”

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