This story appears in the April 30, 2012 NFL Draft issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
THE SANDWICH BAG brims with weed.
On a frosty January evening in Eugene, a University of Oregon student plops onto a couch, nestled between a whirring space heater and a muted television at a friend's off-campus apartment, and pulls a nugget from the bag. At his feet sits a backpack emblazoned with the logo of the Rose Bowl, which he and his teammates had won barely a week before. "Purple Kush," he says of his preferred marijuana strand, which he rolls into a hefty joint between his forefingers and thumbs. "It's pretty much all I smoke."
The joint, to which he adds a dash of tobacco to make a spliff, is typical for this student-athlete. "Bongs and pipes mean more evidence," he says. He lights up, kicks back and exhales a dense cloud. Normally, he'd pass the spliff to one of his Oregon football teammates, but tonight he smokes alone. "Most of the guys are waiting until after winter workouts," he says. Once those
The Ducks are savoring their win over Wisconsin, Oregon's first victory in a Rose Bowl since 1917 and Chip Kelly's first postseason triumph as head coach. Earlier today, the school buzzed as the team made its victory lap around campus. Now, as one Duck relishes another kind of high, he wants to make something clear.
"It's not just us," he says, taking another hit. "If you think Oregon's the only team smoking weed, you're crazy."
NEWS FLASH: COLLEGE kids smoke weed. That includes, according to an NCAA study released in January, 22.6 percent of athletes -- up 1.4 percentage points from the previous study in 2005. College football players (26.7 percent) ranked the highest among major sports. And the Oregon football program provides an interesting case study on the impact -- or lack thereof -- of marijuana use among players. (AD Rob Mullens and Kelly declined to comment for this story.)
It's the weed capital of the world. Long dreads. Girls with hairy armpits. Where there's hippies, there's weed.” -- Former Oregon Duck Reuben Droughns
Situated in the lush Pacific Northwest, Oregon, as well as its southern and northern neighbors, California and Washington, are three of the country's largest producers of weed, earning the Drug Enforcement Agency's designation as an "M7 state," or a primary cultivator of marijuana. Perhaps because of the state's location, Oregon residents have long shown a tolerance for the drug. In 1973, the state was the first in the country to decriminalize possession for small amounts of pot, and 25 years later, Oregon became one of the first to legalize medical marijuana and now claims more than 55,000 card-carrying patients.
Nowhere is Oregon's laissez-faire approach to marijuana more apparent than
The school's football program reflects those realities. In interviews with The Magazine, 19 current or former Oregon players and officials revealed widespread marijuana use by football players for at least the past 15 years. Former Ducks, including current pros, estimate between 40 percent and 60 percent of their teammates puffed; current Ducks say that range remains accurate.
The past several years, some of those players have found their way into the police blotter. Former receiver Derrick Jones (now with the Raiders) was suspended indefinitely from the team in 2007 following a citation for "frequenting a drug house." Two years ago, star QB Jeremiah Masoli (now in the Canadian Football League) was dismissed after, among other transgressions, being cited for possession during a traffic stop. One of the more memorable incidents happened in June, when Oregon state police pulled over a Nissan Altima after clocking it at 118 mph about 45 miles north of Eugene on Interstate 5. The car, which carried three passengers, smelled of pot, according to the police report. At the wheel was Cliff Harris, Oregon's standout cornerback/punt returner on the team that lost the 2010 national championship game to Auburn; also in the car was Ducks starting QB Darron Thomas.
"Who's got the marijuana in the car?" asked the officer, who would later note Harris looked tired and that his eyes were "blown."
Harris' reply? "We smoked it all."
His nonchalance seemed brazen, almost to the point of shocking. Should it be, though? Americans are "living in an environment where there's a greater tolerance of use, not just among the young and experimenters but also the old and afflicted," says Harry Edwards, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of sports sociology who works with major sports leagues on off-field issues. Recently, the researchers of a study in Sports Medicine wrote that athletes claim "smoking cannabis before play helps them focus better" and increases their creativity, and prior studies have found use among athletes to decrease anxiety, fear, depression and tension.
With social mores shifting toward wider acceptance, as they did long ago in Oregon, athletes who toke see little difference between marijuana and more acceptable, legal drugs, such as alcohol. Spend a night with an off-duty pro and you're more likely to see him high than drunk. One NBA player's recent charity event devolved into players from rival teams hotboxing the DJ booth and bonding over blunts. At another fundraiser, Snoop Dogg asked the audience -- many of whom were NFL and NBA players -- to pass him some weed, and they showered him with flaming joints. One professional athlete likes to tell the story of a traffic stop that ended with the officer telling him to leave his weed at home -- "and good luck this season."
"Being an athlete does not insulate one from those kinds of involvements, especially since the drug is closely tied to socializing," says Edwards.
And few social cliques are as insular as student-athletes, who live, study, practice, eat and travel together for months at a time. Many Ducks consider group smokes an unsanctioned team activity. "In a weird way, it helps you bond," says Droughns. For the most part, athletes see pot simply as harmless fun -- "happy time," says ex-Duck Onterrio Smith, who, as a member of the Minnesota Vikings in 2005, was nabbed by airport security with an Original
Ducks say Eugene comes with its own set of herb-enabling circumstances, namely the area's inclement weather. Former Ducks star Saladin McCullough, who smoked while playing in the 1990s, says Oregon's rain tends to facilitate two hobbies: "Video games and weed."
We factor in marijuana as a red flag. Some teams, if a guy tests positive, he's off their board. But other teams say, 'Screw it, he's a good player.'"” -- An NFL scout
Consider the typical realities of college life, including peer pressure, experimentation and free time, and add the atypical challenges of being a college football player, such as pain and a stressful workload, and marijuana's prevalence is anything but surprising. "Let's be honest," says Fenuki Tupou, an Oregon alum now with the Saints. "When you're bored, it's not like you're going to read a book."
Tupou says he never smoked, and it's not as if other players blaze at the corner of 13th and Kincaid. At Oregon, there is a long tradition of players policing themselves. Several Ducks reference a "code" followed by teammates who handle weed-related matters in-house on a case-to-case basis. "Some guys who use marijuana go out and ball because they're relaxed," says former QB Akili Smith, "but if it affects his play, you sit him down and tell him, 'Yo, it's not for you.'?" Today, that code still stands. "If you're not hurting the team, everyone's cool with it," says a current Ducks player.
They also pass down lessons, from one class to another, to help avoid detection: Buy through friends rather than dealers; keep it away from campus; if you think a test is coming, ask for detox information, which "is shared between teams and by NFL guys too," says another current player; and never smoke in public or at parties. "We're celebrities here," says another Duck.
Those in charge aren't blind to the challenges their athletes face. Just ask Bill Moos, who was Oregon's athletic director from 1995 to 2007 and has been Washington State's AD since 2010. "These young people are growing up in a culture where smoking a joint is no different than having a beer," he says.
However, local laws sometimes hamper the detection-and-discipline efforts of athletic programs. Mike Bellotti, Oregon head coach from 1995 to 2008, laments a state law that allows schools to test athletes only when probable cause exists. "I think every college has a problem with marijuana," says Bellotti, who's now an ESPN commentator, "but it's a greater problem where you don't have the lever of random testing."
Moos estimates that he nabbed two dozen dope-smoking Ducks, across all sports, during his 12 years in Eugene. So far at Wazzu he's dealt with no fewer than eight athletes for marijuana-related issues, despite a probable- cause law in Washington that's similar to Oregon's. His Wazzu policy, which is three strikes and you're out, "may have a bit more bite to it" than the policy he had at Oregon, Moos says, in part because he's now given his coaches the option of implementing their own zero-tolerance rule. "We still have a ways to go," he says, "but we're sending a message."
The Oregon regime is also cracking down. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Kelly has taken a hard stance in his three seasons as head coach. "I've heard weed was bigger before I got there," says one Kelly-era Duck, "but Chip cracked down on that. He'll actually attend classes with guys. If you miss a study hall, he'll drug-test you."
Edwards, who has counted Kelly's program as a client, vouches for the coach. "I assure you, this is not a University of Oregon issue; this is an American issue," he says. "Chip is very much interested in safeguarding the futures of his athletes and making sure he runs a tight ship."
THERE IS ONE more group that factors into this equation, one with more influence than the NCAA, college administrators or coaches -- the NFL, which is decidedly undecided on the subject. "We factor in marijuana as a red flag," says one scout. "Some teams, if a guy tests positive, he's off their board. But other teams say, 'Screw it, he's a good player.'" Another scout says his team raises the flag only after three positive tests. "More players do it than don't, in both college and the NFL," the scout says.
That's an attitude of tolerance that has mostly changed during the past decade or so. It was only in 1995 that Warren Sapp, arguably the best player in the draft, went 12th after reportedly testing positive for weed at the combine. Three years later, Randy Moss dropped to a low first-round pick partially because of multiple marijuana charges. But this year, Dre Kirkpatrick, the top corner on Alabama's national championship team, has barely budged from his mid-first-round status despite being arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession. Perhaps that's because charges were later dropped.
Meanwhile, after missing most of last season, ex-Oregon corner Harris is still looking like a middle-round pick. As a sophomore in 2010, he was considered by some analysts to be among the nation's best cover men and pure athletes after leading the Pac-10 with six interceptions and setting a school record with four punt-return TDs. After that June speeding incident (Harris passed a sobriety field test, and no marijuana was found), for which he was suspended from the season opener against LSU, the All-American saw action in only six games. In October, he was cited again -- for not wearing a seat belt -- resulting in an indefinite suspension from team activities. During a visit to his hometown of Fresno, Calif., in November, Harris was cited for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and booted from the team. "It's a situation where he's clearly into stuff off the field," says ESPN analyst Mel Kiper. "Scouts wonder: Has he lost focus? Is the work ethic there?"
After signing with superagent Eugene Parker, Harris set about turning the opinions of NFL personnel with a series of forthcoming interviews. "I was young, I was dumb, I made a couple of bonehead moves," Harris told reporters at the NFL combine in February. "I'm ready to prove I'm not going to make those same mistakes."
Which is exactly what scouts want to hear.
As weed has spread throughout college football, more often than not draft prospects elect to come clean. One senior NFL executive who interviewed players at the combine says about 70 percent confessed to smoking pot, likely on the advice of their agents. Their reasoning? Given the drug's popularity, if players deny having used weed, NFL teams will simply assume they're lying. One agent goes so far as to say that teams don't care about marijuana as much as character and integrity -- implying that the lie would be far worse than the drug use.
The NFL's stance puts the issue of marijuana squarely in the laps of college football programs. How can you prevent a player from using when the game's top talent evaluators practically want to hear that he's smoked?
Answer: You don't, really. You just hope your players don't get caught.
BACK AT THE off-campus apartment, a muted celebration continues. The smoking Duck appears to be coming down from his high, and he's hungry. He says he'll probably order in, play NBA 2K11 on the Xbox 360 and call it a night. "Some guys drink beer," he says. "They'll get drunk, act crazy, get in trouble. I don't like beer. I like to chill and smoke weed."
Above all, he likes to win football games, a task that will be made more difficult for the Ducks with the departures of stars Thomas and running back LaMichael James to the NFL. To ensure that one of college football's
"Know what I mean?"