Why Do We Drug Test Athletes For Recreational Drugs?

Just about every week an athlete is suspended for using recreational drugs. Whether it’s Dustin Johnson in the PGA or Josh Gordon in the NFL, drug testing for non-performance enhancing drugs strikes down scads of athlete eligibility. Most fans, players, and media shrug their shoulders and lament that a player couldn’t avoid using drugs despite having millions of dollars at stake. It’s a fair point in that it allows us to moralize about the failings of others — a topic that seems to represent a growing percentage of our national sporting discourse in a social media era — but no one really asks a more interesting question — why do we drug test athletes for recreational drugs at all?

I’ve been thinking about this question ever since the Ray Rice suspension. Most of you agreed that a two game suspension was laughably insignificant given what occurred between Rice and his wife, and many of you Tweeted and emailed about the dichotomy of treatment between Josh Gordon, who may miss the entire season for failing a third drug test, and Rice. The more I think about it the more I keep coming back to a central question that no one really ever asks — why do we test athletes for non-performance enhancing drugs? I can’t come up with a rationale that makes sense. It seems to be a leftover policy of the nation’s “war on drugs,” a war that has cost us billions and had no discernible impact.

I’m all for testing for performance enhancing drugs. That directly implicates the sanctity of the sport and conveys an unfair advantage, encouraging players who otherwise might not use steroids or other drugs to try whatever they can to keep up with everyone else. This is the story of baseball’s steroid era writ large. The story of competitive cycling too. So testing for performance enhancing drugs makes total sense. But if you want to consume non-performance enhancing drugs shouldn’t that be your risk? Won’t the long term impact of using recreational drugs make you worse at your job, leading to a shorter playing tenure, to someone else replacing you? If non-performance enhancing drug risk hurts performance, the individual ultimately pays the price. After all, we allow athletes to consume as much alcohol and tobacco products as they see fit. Eating fast food every day probably acts as a performance hindrance as well. Why is it the responsibility of pro sports leagues to police player activity when it comes to drugs when so much else is left to chance?

Put it this way, does anyone really think Dustin Johnson was worse at golf because he occasionally used cocaine? I mean, is that really much worse than drinking 12 beers the night before a round? Does anyone really think that Josh Gordon smoking weed makes him worse at football? If it does, I’d like to have more of what he’s smoking to pass out to the receivers on my favorite NFL team, he led all NFL players in yards receiving last season. This drug rehab centers in LA says that league drug testing isn’t about ensuring peak performance, it’s about control, the owners want to control what the players are able to do as much as possible. What’s more, even without testing you can still penalize drug use. After all, if you get arrested for using drugs or for possession, you can still be suspended under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

Moreover, it’s not just pro sports leagues. Colleges have some of the most rigorous drug testing policies around. At least pro athletes are able to bargain for or against the testing via their unions — the fact that they don’t fight this testing is one of a billion signs of why player unions are so weak what do players receive in exchange for giving up their privacy? — but how in the world can we justify testing college athletes? They’re on scholarship, scream the masses. So are millions of other college students. We don’t drug test students on academic scholarships or music scholarships or any number of other college scholarships. We don’t make you pee in a cup to get college loans, either, which means that college athletes are being held to an entirely different standard than all their peers on campus.

Sure, the leagues can argue that they’re trying to prevent their players from becoming addicted to drugs, but that rings hollow. This isn’t about treatment, it’s about punishment. Hell, one of the reasons NFL players are using drugs is to escape the impact of concussions, you know, the significant long-range injury that the league avoided acknowledging for decades. Do I wish no one ever used drugs? Sure. But I also with unicorns and the tooth fairy existed too. This isn’t about morality, it’s about power disguised as morality, the hypocritical smokescreen of our era.

Plus, it’s not like athletes have that serious of jobs. We don’t typically drug test doctors, lawyers, architects or CEOs of major corporations, all of whom have much more at stake than athletes do. If a doctor can put athletes to sleep, cut open their legs, and fix their ACLs without peeing in a cup inside his hospital, why are we drug testing athletes, the guys tearing their ACLs? Doesn’t that seem backwards?

Some will argue that drugs are illegal. They say this as if it totally ends the argument, conveniently forgetting that many other things players do are also illegal. Tax fraud is illegal too. Are teams conducting random accounting audits to make sure player taxes are filed correctly? Speeding is illegal too and it contributes to tens of thousands of deaths a year. Do we install a governor device on a player’s car to ensure that he drives within the speed limit? Domestic violence is illegal, and the NFL clearly doesn’t have much of an issue with that either. What’s more, weed, to some degree or another, is now legal in 35 states and the District of Columbia. Most player suspensions come from positive tests for weed. How can sports leagues penalize players for doing something that’s legal where they live?

Please stop with the, “I get drug tested at my job,” emails and comments too. Odds are that unless you drive for a living or work with children, I probably don’t see the necessity for that testing either. (I’ll grant you the necessity for drug testing in NASCAR, where drivers are in charge of vehicles moving at incredibly fast rates of speed, outside of that, I don’t see any sports justification that makes sense.) But comparing yourself with a high-profile athlete doesn’t make much sense. The truth is, most of us are expendable at our jobs, we aren’t the top 1% of the 1%. Athletes are. Also stop with the role model talk. If your kids are using athletes as their role models, it’s too late. They’re done for, they’ve already learned what not to do a thousand times over.

Rather than pointing out that you are subject to drug testing, ask yourself this: is your boss’s, boss’s boss subject to drug testing? Probably not. Drug testing is about power, those without it get tested, those with it, don’t. Can the CEO of Wal-Mart be fired or suspended for smoking weed in the privacy of his own home? Please. Is Jerry Jones peeing in a cup before NFL owner’s meetings? Is Mark Cuban doing the same before NBA owner’s meetings? I think we all know the answer to that. One thing’s for sure, we sure as hell know Jim Irsay isn’t. Ultimately what’s good for their employees isn’t also good for the boss. Recreational drug use testing isn’t about protecting the leagues, it’s about controlling the players, and it should end. Now.

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.

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