When Mitch McGary played high school basketball in New Hampshire, he was one of the nation’s top recruits. Michigan fans were rightly thrilled when he decided to play for the Wolverines.
In his first NCAA tournament, last spring, McGary played so well folks thought he might jump to the NBA. Instead, he returned for his sophomore year – then injured his back so badly, he needed surgery mid-season. The Wolverines weren’t doing much better at 6-4, with Big Ten conference play still ahead. It looked like Michigan might miss the NCAA tournament.
The Wolverines proved them wrong by winning the Big Ten regular season title – its first since 1986 – with McGary cheering them on from the bench. McGary also beat the odds, recovering so quickly he dressed for Michigan’s final NCAA tournament game, joining his teammates for warm-ups.
The Wolverines’ dreams fell short when they lost to Kentucky in the regional final. After the game, the NCAA conducted its routine, random drug tests on a few players – including Mitch McGary.
This makes sense. No one wants to see a team using steroids win the title. The NCAA has a special role, too, in looking out for the health of its student-athletes – and the damage steroids can do is no secret.
The drug test McGary failed, however, was not for steroids. The NCAA can never seem to catch those guys. It was for marijuana, which is now legal in two states. Still, the NCAA’s rule is well known, and it was McGary’s job to follow it. He has no one to blame but himself – and to his credit, that’s just what he’s done. But when the NCAA gave McGary a season-long suspension, he decided to jump to the NBA.
I thought I was beyond being shocked by the NCAA. But I was wrong.
The basic idea, I get – and I support. McGary failed the test, and that has consequences. But the punishment is ludicrous – and the NCAA, more so.
Keep in mind, the NCAA doesn’t test for alcohol, even though it’s illegal for everyone under 21 – a group which includes roughly three quarters of college athletes. In fact, in Ann Arbor, the penalty for underage drinking is $350, and the penalty for possessing marijuana is 25 bucks. The NBA no longer tests for marijuana, because so many players would fail it.
I used to coach high school hockey, and I was pretty strict. When one of our players got caught smoking pot, we suspended him for a quarter of the season. But we allowed him to practice, so we wouldn’t lose him. We wanted him to learn responsibility, not leave. As one of my mentors told me, “When in doubt, err on the side of the kid.”
It worked. He learned his lesson, played an important role, and has since graduated from college. We’re still in touch, and I’m proud of him.
What did the NCAA teach McGary? If you turn down the NBA, return for your sophomore year, take school seriously, suffer a season-ending injury but cheer on your teammates anyway – and then you make one dumb mistake, you’re done. Nothing else matters.
Prohibition showed us that when our rules are ridiculous, the people who enforce them start looking ridiculous, too. And it’s a pretty good sign your punishment is absurd when the recipient would be a fool to accept it.
I wonder if any of the NCAA’s employees have ever smoked pot? Does the NCAA test them to find out? If an NCAA employee failed the test, would he be suspended for a year without pay? And if so, would he accept that punishment, or leave the NCAA to work for – oh, I don’t know – the NBA?
McGary has undoubtedly learned some lessons – but not the ones the NCAA is supposed to teach him, about accountability, second chances, and redemption. Instead, the NCAA has shown him that some authority figures can’t tell the difference between a civil infraction and a felony, and it’s given him an unforgettable lesson in rank hypocrisy.
And once you’ve learned that, I cannot blame you for going to the NBA. There’s nothing more to learn here, that you need to learn.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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