ESPN Must be High: Drugs & Jim Crow in Sports’ Reporting
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
My concern and interest in sports often has little to do with sports. While I am clearly a fan, someone who enjoys watching and thinking about sports, I am often drawn into the world sports because of the larger implications and meanings. Sports are more than a game; it is a pedagogy, a technology, and an instrument of larger social, political, and racial processes. During a recent interview with Colorlines, I spoke about the danger in seeing sport as purely game, entertainment, or distraction:
One of the things that often strikes me is the disconnect between progressive and those engaged in anti-racist movement and struggles — and sports. Sports continues to be seen as antithetical or a distraction, or not part and parcel with the movements for justice. I think that when you have a society that is increasingly invested in and has been for the last 30 years, with incarceration, with a suspension culture, with racial profiling, it’s not a coincidence that you have a sports culture that’s equally invested in those practices. And invested in the language of the criminal justice system.
I consume and am consumed by sports not simply because of the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” but because of its potential as a source of social change. Yet, sports continue to be a site for the perpetuation of injustice, violence, and despair. As a critical scholar, as an anti-racist practitioner, and as someone committed to justice, my gaze is never just as fan. In watching games, listening to commentaries, and reading various sports publications, I am unable and unwilling to suspend this gaze. So, it should be no surprise that when I recently opened ESPN: The Magazine, to find an article on drug use and college football, it had my attention.
“Of 400,000 athletes, about 0.6 percent will be tested for marijuana by the NCAA.” The lead-to ESPN’s sensationalized and misleading story on marijuana use and collegiate football, thus, frames the story as one about both rampant illegal drug use and the absence of accountability. While attempting to draw readers into their stereotyped-ridden, sensationalized tabloid journalism masking as investigative reporting/journalistic expose, it reflects the dangerous in this piece. “College football players smoking marijuana is nothing new. Coaches and administrators have been battling the problem and disciplining players who do so for decades,” writes Mark Schlabach. He highlights the purported epidemic plaguing college football by citing the following:
NCAA statistics show a bump in the number of stoned athletes. In the NCAA’s latest drug-use survey, conducted in 2009 and released in January, 22.6 percent of athletes admitted to using marijuana in the previous 12 months, a 1.4 percentage point increase over a similar 2005 study. Some 26.7 percent of football players surveyed fessed up, a higher percentage than in any other major sport. (The use of other drugs, such as steroids and amphetamines, has declined or held steady.) A smaller percentage of athletes actually get caught, but those numbers are also on the rise. In the latest available postseason drug-testing results, positive pot tests increased in all three divisions, from 28 in 2008-09 to 71 the following school year.
It is important to examine the evidence because of the narrative being offered here and the larger context given the racial implications of the war on drugs.
According to Schlabach, 22.6 percent of football players acknowledging using marijuana; in student-athletes playing football were the most likely to acknowledge marijuana amongst those participating in MAJOR sports. While unclear how he is defining major sports, I would gather that those major sports include football, track, basketball, and baseball, coincidentally sports dominated by African Americans in disproportionate numbers. Why limit the discussion here other than to perpetuate a stereotype? Does the revenue or popularity of a sport require greater scrutiny? I think not.
Examination of the actual NCAA study tells a different story. Indeed, baseball (21.5%); basketball (22.2%), and track (16.0%) trail football. Only men’s golf and tennis, with numbers of 22.5% 23.2% trails football amongst non-major sports. If one compares reported marijuana use between collegiate football players to their peers in swimming (27.2%) ice hockey (27.4%), wrestling (27.7%), soccer (29.4%), and lacrosse (48.5%), it becomes clear that football is not the problem. Add women’s field hockey (35.7) and women’s lacrosse into that mix, and yet again it is clear who is getting high. In fact, when High Times or Bill Maher looks for a role model within collegiate sports, they are more likely to call upon soccer or lacrosse players than a football player.
ESPN further mischaracterizes the study by failing to sufficiently acknowledge the differences drug use in Division 1 football and Division III. The NCAA study found that marijuana use is least common amongst Division I student-athletes (16.9%), where Division II student-athletes (21.4%) and those from Division III having the highest level of usage with a number of 28.3%. Since the 2005 study, drug usage actually declined at the Division I level, while increases were seen in other two divisions.