Mandatory testing sure to stir the pot

Updated: January 30, 2004, 10:34 PM ET
By Frank Hughes | Special to ESPN.com

The NBA -- No Bongs Anymore.

No, really. We're not kidding. The league is ultra-serious about eliminating weed from its Garden of Eden.

As the league and the players association continue double top secret probationary negotiations on an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, the issue of marijuana usage by players has arisen as a bargaining point.

So, too, has the issue of veterans skipping the first three days of training camp -- which is due to extend to five days this coming October -- in part because the league saw such ragged play through the first few weeks of the season.

But the second item could be a, well, excuse the pun, smoke screen.

Really, neither side cares too much about a few days of practice here and there, or an extra day off around the All-Star break, which the league is offering as relief. The real issue is going to be the elimination of intoxication in the form of Cheech and Chong's favorite pastime.

In a recent letter from union head Billy Hunter to all NBA players, Hunter wrote: "At the most recent negotiating session wiith the NBA owners ... the NBA expressed displeasure and concern about the alleged usage or possession of marijuana by several NBA players. Their contention is that the taint of marijuana usage by even a few players negatively impacts the entire NBA and that the only way to repair the NBA's image is to make significant changes to the anti-drug policy. As such, they proposed requiring mandatory random testing of all veterans during the season as well as during training camp. Currently, veterans may ONLY be tested during training camp."

I find this extremely interesting because there are several forces at work here, as well as several issues that need to be addressed, either by the league as a whole or by players on an individual basis.

The first issue, of course, is just how many NBA players are smoking dope. Hunter's letter says "several NBA players" and "usage by even a few players," as if five or six guys are spoiling it for everybody else. What it really should say is five or six guys getting caught is spoiling it for everybody else.

In 2001, the New York Times wrote a story that suggested that 60 percent of the league is smoking marijuana. Outspoken forward Charles Oakley came out shortly thereafter and reiterated that claim.

And when you see half the roster on the Portland Trail Blazers getting caught with marijuana-related infractions, and players like Christian Laettner getting suspended for violating the drug policy, well, you have to think by reasonable deduction that more than a few players are smoking.

And that's why this ploy by the league is so clever -- and why random testing is going to be instituted.

Qyntel Woods and Rasheed Wallace
Mandatory drug testing will be no laughing matter for Rasheed Wallace, right, and NBA veterans.
Hunter's letter to the players went on to say: "I would like each of you to speak with your team's player representative and have them contact me once a team consensus has been reached. Or, if you would prefer, contact me directly, as to whether or not the NBA's proposed modifications are acceptable or what changes, if any, you would be willing to accept to the anti-drug policy."

The players are in a no-win situation here. You ask them to submit to random testing. If they are not smoking, they have nothing to lose, right? Test away. If they are smoking, voting against the new policy is essentially an admission of guilt that a majority of players are smoking and therefore do not want to be tested randomly throughout the season.

Player reps Adonal Foyle of the Golden State Warriors and Elton Brand of the Los Angeles Clippers both seemed to suggest that random testing is no big thing.

"When I talked to the guys, a lot of guys are indifferent," Brand said. "They are prepared for whatever. Not a big deal as long as we can get something in return in negotiations."

"We need our league to be clean," Foyle said. "So a lot of us feel like let's do what it takes to secure the integrity of our league.

"We feel that not a lot of guys are doing this. There are a few people who are. And they are making it difficult for everybody else. So we are willing to give something. Of course, it is all subject to what we get in return, but if that is what they want to do to bring back the integrity of the league, we are willing to say, 'OK, let's talk about it. We are willing to do that. But we are not doing this because we feel there are a lot of guys in the league doing it. We are doing it because we feel that we need to stand up and be unified.

"Because it is our league as well as the owners' league."

Of course, what else are those players supposed to say? I have a hunch that saying we are voting no because we don't want everybody to get caught is not going to go over well with the public.
Of course, what else are those players supposed to say? I have a hunch that saying we are voting no because we don't want everybody to get caught is not going to go over well with the public.

"What can they say?", queries Seattle SuperSonics guard Antonio Daniels, who firmly grasps the conundrum of the situation. "It comes to a point where you have to take a stand one way or another. Eventually the truth comes to light. If you say no, I don't think we should be tested, then they are going to look at you."

And if you agree to random testing, either a lot of players are going to test positive next season, or a lot of players are going to have to alter their lifestyles. At least if you believe The New York Times, Oakley or the police blotter in Portland.

Daniels played in Portland last season before signing in Seattle as a free agent. He said the Blazers players, as well as most around the league, recognize the joke of the current drug policy, in which one negative test in training camp, scheduled in advance, allows a veteran player off the hook for the rest of the year.

"We are all grown men, you know," Daniels said. "Guys are very intelligent. Guys are smart. If they (the league) want to change things, I think they know how. That is the easiest way I know how to put it."

Daniels also thinks instituting a new policy, in which all veterans can be randomly tested, violates a player's current rights. But he said he understands the position the league is in.

"There's two sides to almost everything," Daniels said. "In a way it does violate our rights, obviously. But where can you draw a compromise? We can just say, 'Yes, OK, it does violate our rights, but go ahead and do it.' You can't have your cake and eat it, too."

Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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