Syracuse report sheds light on bigger issue

March, 5, 2012
3/05/12
8:15
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"So what?"

"It's probably only marijuana."

"It happens everywhere."

"What’s the big deal?"

Those are the general responses on Twitter, social media and message boards to the Yahoo! Sports report that a number of former Syracuse basketball players were allowed to play despite repeatedly failing drug tests that should have rendered them ineligible by school policy.

Well, it is a big deal for one small reason and another bigger one.

The small one: Syracuse has a policy in place for athletes, a detailed punitive system for people who fail random drug tests. If there’s a policy, a team is expected to follow it. The lacrosse team should follow it. Ditto the field hockey team and the tennis team and, presumably, the men’s basketball team.

We can argue whether a college kid being busted for use of a recreational substance is silly in this day and age, but it is the policy.

It's written down, in black and white, clear cut and easily interpreted. One would expect it to be enforced, no?

As for the "everyone is doing it," let’s go back to kindergarten and remind everyone that doesn’t make it right. (And at the risk of being a middle-aged prude, even recreational is still illegal).

[+] EnlargeNCAA
AP Photo/Matt RourkeThe NCAA defers to a school's policy when a student athlete fails a drug test.
We have spent the past few months shoulder-shrugging and blaming the rule instead of the rule-breaker.

The APR is a foolish way to measure academic success, so Connecticut shouldn’t be punished. Reeves Nelson is a good basketball player, so UCLA should excuse his abhorrent behavior.

And now this. We should overlook the fact that Syracuse potentially played as many as 10 ineligible players because the policy is silly?

The university, through a statement, admitted it self-reported violations to the NCAA more than a year ago in regards to its drug-testing policy, which could be nothing less than an admission it played ineligible players. The NCAA says it currently has an ongoing investigation.

That’s rather huge, whether it’s recreational or not.

Enough excuses. It is time we stop trying to rationalize bad behavior and instead punish it.

Beyond that, beyond the reaches of Syracuse, this story opens the curtain on a much bigger problem in college athletics.

Namely that there is no uniform NCAA policy or Big East policy regarding drug testing or punishment. Even better, there’s not even a mandate that every university randomly drug tests its athletes. Some, in fact, do not, waiting instead until championship season, when the NCAA tests.

That’s not a loophole.

That’s a black hole.

When contacted by ESPN.com on Monday, NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn said that "for institutional drug testing, NCAA rules require that institutions follow their respective school policy when a school administered drug test is failed by a student-athlete. Generally speaking, street drug-related positive tests are best handled with local intervention, treatment, and counseling."

So the NCAA isn’t afraid to tell its member institutions if it can pay for an athlete’s meal or if it can help an athlete’s family member get to a game. The conferences don't hesitate to make clear rules on a wide range of things, including set punishments if a player throws a punch during competition.

But neither the national organization nor the league in this case has guidelines for what to do if a kid is caught doing drugs?

How is that even possible? How can organizations that purport to be all about the betterment of the student-athlete, about molding young people into good citizens, not govern this?

Worse, how can they leave drug testing in the hands of people who have a vested interest in whether an athlete plays or sits?

This isn’t complicated. Require X number of random drug tests per team per season. The results are turned in to the National Center for Drug-Free Sport, which handles the testing for the NCAA.

If a person fails for this substance, punishment A happens. Two failures equates to punishment B and so on.

Clean, simple and unbiased.

The NCAA will be quick to retroactively punish Syracuse for reportedly failing to adhere to its own policy, and it should. But it is every bit as culpable for allowing such a mockery of a system to be perpetuated.

None of this excuses Syracuse and its inaction.

The onus right now is on the university, and whether any individual or individuals read the results and looked the other way while thumbing their nose at school policy.

And if they said, "So what?" Well, then it’s time they learned the answer.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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