Every year at this time, we’re reminded that many college football players have smoked marijuana. Given that many college students smoke marijuana at some point or other during their four (or five … or eight) years of "higher" education, it’s not really a surprise.
Usually, the issue hits the NFL radar screen due to reports of positive marijuana samples generated by players tested at the Scouting Combine. Given that the players know they’ll be tested, a positive result constitutes evidence of a problem — or proof of extreme stupidity. But while those players require more scrutiny, the supposed rash of players who tested positive during college or who admitted to smoking marijuana in pre-draft interviews gets far more focus than it deserves.
Teams generally don’t care if players smoke pot. Teams care if smoking pot affects player performance, or if it keeps them from playing due to a suspension. "There’s a difference between a guy who smokes pot from time to time," said an agent who requested anonymity, "and Charles Rogers or Onterrio Smith."
Rogers, the second overall pick in the 2003 draft, and Smith, a first-round talent who slid to Round 4 due in part to multiple marijuana issues, couldn’t put down the weed, even when their livelihoods depended on it. But for every player who smokes his way out of the league, there are hundreds who can stop cold turkey as soon as they enter the league’s substance-abuse program and become subject to up to 10 unannounced tests per month. Indeed, most men prefer playing pro football to smoking pot, and most can quit when they absolutely must.
Still, scouts and coaches claim to be worried about the issue. One unnamed head coach recently told Don Banks of SI.com that "[i]t’s something that’s concerning to all coaches and general managers in this league."
Apparently, these aging muckety-mucks all have forgotten the things they did when they were 20. As the agent who requested anonymity told me, he recalls in their younger days a current "high-level NFL decision-maker" passing him a joint.
Really, how many of the people who occupy positions of influence and responsibility in the NFL can say they haven’t smoked pot at least once in their lives? It’s a normal – albeit illegal – activity, and concerns should arise only when the player has become addicted to it or has become entangled with law enforcement because of it.
In the grand scheme of things, few players are suspended for using marijuana. Even fewer see their careers end. Thus, the reward outweighs the risk. Last year, many news outlets reported via anonymous sources that Vikings receiver Percy Harvin tested positive for marijuana at the Scouting Combine, and he only went on to have a dramatic impact on the Minnesota offense and special teams.
So why is it suddenly a big deal? It could be that some teams hope to scare other teams into passing on players with red flags due to green leaves, which could cause highly-talented players to slide into the clutches of teams that are quietly fueling the anti-pot crusade. Or it could be that many of these scouts and coaches are too old to remember what it’s like to be a kid in college, and the things that they and their friends did 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
Those who realize that marijuana use now is no more of an epidemic now than it ever has been will be in the best position to do the homework necessary to differentiate those who control their pot smoking from those whose pot smoking controls them. And the teams who take the time to draw those lines instead of simply striking from the board anyone who has a history of doing something that a large percentage of the total college population has done will reap the benefits on draft day.
Heck, maybe even a few of the G.M.’s and coaches will celebrate by firing up a doobie.
Mike Florio writes and edits ProFootballTalk.com and is a regular contributor to Sporting News. Check out PFT for up-to-the minute NFL news.