The Times West Virginian

Sports

April 18, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Under pressure, NCAA decides to change rules

MORGANTOWN — At first glance, it appears that they do not go hand-in-hand, a pair of rules changes the NCAA’s Legislative Council approved this week, sending them off for what seems to be smooth sailing toward becoming rules.

The first was expanding the NCAA’s role in feeding its athletes, allowing three meals a day plus snacks and not just for scholarship players, as it was, but also for walk-ons … who, the NCAA suddenly discovered after all these years of using them as everything from tackling dummies to stars have appetites as big as scholarship players.

The second seemed to be going off in another direction, reducing the penalty for a positive test for marijuana from a full season suspension to half a season.

How, you ask, are these connected?

As my former co-worker and dear friend Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com wrote the other day, making the point there is a difference between performance-enhancing drugs and pot, “one makes you bigger the other makes you want to attack a bag of Cheetos.”

If the NCAA was going to follow the trend society seems to be following as it heads toward the legalization of marijuana — or to at least realize that there is reason to separate it from other drugs, both street drugs and performance-enhancing drugs — then it must deal with the results of that decision.

And if the results are to “attack a bag of Cheetos” or snacks of other sorts, its member schools should certainly at least pay for the munchies.

All joking aside, these two rules changes are far more important than they may seem to be on the surface.

Much has been made over the past day of the loosening of the restrictions on athletic training tables, that growing out of a Final Four statement from guard Shabazz Napier of national champion UConn, who revealed that many a night he had gone to bed hungry because he was unable to afford food.

The statement, well timed as it was, had nothing to do with the NCAA legislation, however, for that was long in the pipeline. But it made the rule change the stuff of which headlines are made.

Certainly, it seems to be a reasonable and even charitable move by the NCAA, but you wonder if the organization would have so much as even thought of considering it were it not under attack from its student-athletes in the courtroom.

An effort to unionize certainly is lessened by taking up the matter of treatment of the athletes when it comes to removing the issue of nutrition off the table, so to speak. And then there is the matter of a law suit filed by West Virginia University’s own Shawne Alston, who claimed that the amount of a scholarship did not cover the full cost of an education.

Alston claimed that he had to take out a $5,000 loan despite his scholarship, and certainly part of that loan comes from midnight snacks or a fourth meal that might be necessary to replace the calories that are burned up through workouts to become a football player.

This change in the rules puts the NCAA ahead of the curve in stopping future claims should it come up on the short end of the Alston suite.

The marijuana rule is aimed at changing the organization’s outlook upon the drug.

“Street drugs are not performance-enhancing in nature, and this change will encourage schools to provide student-athletes the necessary rehabilitation,” read part of the proposal.

This falls directly in step with society, which is slowly legalizing it across America and sees the solution to its abuse in rehabilitation, not criminalization.

The use of marijuana has grown beyond being a matter for athletic departments to deal with. It has moved into the hands of state governments and, in the future, probably the national government.

As Dodd points out, steroids directly affect performance on the field, unlike marijuana, which present a far more a social and societal issue … especially in college towns.

Not to say that it is everywhere in settings such as Morgantown, but just the other day a friend was golfing on one of our local courses and came across a flip-top cigarette pack laying on the course. He bent down and picked it up and looked inside and was surprised to find not only one cigarette left in the pack but a neatly rolled joint.

“I’ve found a lot of things on golf courses,” he said, “but never whacky-tabbacky before.”

The NCAA tests for marijuana only at bowl games and national championships and you seldom hear of anyone failing such a test and being suspended. Schools also test but have freedom to deal with it as they see fit.

It started drug testing in 1986, and a story in The New York Times in 2013 said positives “hovered around 1 percent”, which really isn’t much of a problem. What’s more, since the group began testing for drugs, the view of marijuana use has changed to a point that it has been legalized in a number of states and that number figures to only grow.

So, it would seem, the NCAA is moving down the right road in both pieces of legislation … now if it can just find a way to take control of its own sports away from television and begin running them for the athletes and schools again, we will move toward a more perfect world.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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