Drug Culture on College Campuses and the Criminalization of Student Athletes


Eye on Culture

In a world where the stigmas of drugs and the destructiveness of the war on drugs have been confined to the black community, particularly those segregated urban spaces, the recent announcement of the arrest of several students from Texas Christian University should cause pause. Following a 6-month investigation from the DEA, the police arrested 17 students, including 4 football players, selling a myriad of drugs – marijuana, cocaine, prescription drugs and ecstasy on and off campus. The inclusion of 4 football players resulted in widespread media coverage, few which made note that 3 of those arrested were white, an important fact given the media-produced stereotype about race, crime, and American athletes. Worse yet, the efforts to isolate the problem of drugs to student athletes, not only plays upon stereotypes about black athletes, even in instances such as this where only 1 person involved is African American, but once again exonerates whiteness from the discussion. In narrating the problem of drugs on college campuses through athletics, an identity difficult to disentangle from blackness within the white imagination, the media sensationalism perpetuates a racially-defined war on drugs.

Described as a “stain on the football program,” and “an especially embarrassing blow to the school because it included four members of the high-profile football team,” the media response focused on the arrest of the 4 student-athletes, simultaneously rendering the other students (at least 11) and non-students involved as insignificant to the larger story. Those from the football team became the story, the starting team, with the others involved reduced to peripheral bench players unworthy of media investigation or commentary. In “TCU Will Survive Shameful Day,” Jean-Jacques Taylor denounced the players as “shameful, embarrassing, stupid,” seemingly letting the other students involved, the school, and the coach off the hook. In fact, Taylor celebrates the coach for how he handled the situation even though according to the article, 80 players tested positive for drugs (other sources put this number between 5-16): “Perhaps he’s simply observed what’s happened at Ohio State and Penn State recently and decided the fallout from the cover-up is so much worse than the crime that it’s far better to come clean and deal with the consequences,” writes the reporter for ESPN Dallas. “Either way, Patterson should be applauded for having the gumption to reportedly order team-wide drug testing when a recruit told him that he was declining a scholarship offer because of the drug culture.” Like much of the media coverage, Taylor turns a 6-month investigation that netted the arrests of at least 17 people for narcotics distribution to the “drug culture” of the team.

He was not alone with a significant media emphasis on how the arrests were emblematic of an epidemic ravaging college athletes. Eric Olson, with “TCU Bust Sign of Increased Pot Problem,” sought to contextualize the arrests as evidence of a larger problem. Noting that 22.6% of student-athletes reported using marijuana once during the last 12 months, and how that number is up from 21.2% in 2005, Olson argues that these arrests are indicative of a larger problem for college sports. Yet, the “evidence” provided by this study is actually contradicted by the study itself, which argues that the slight increase in marijuana use reflects a societal shift rather than something specific to college athletics. Moreover, the study found that within the NCAA, marijuana use is least common amongst Division I student-athletes (16.9%), with Division II student-athletes (21.4%) and those from Division III having the highest level of usage with a number of 28.3%. In fact, while drug usage declined at the Division I level, those other two levels saw increases. Olson also references usage amongst student-athletes playing football and basketball, coincidentally those sports with the most visible number of African Americans, implying that the problem is acute within these sports. While basketball (22%) and football (26.7%) mirror widespread findings within all sports (the study doesn’t break the information down for each sport within each division), men’s lacrosse (48.5%), women’s lacrosse (30%) and women’s field hockey (35.7%) might as well get a feature article in High Times.

Conflating their arrests for alleged drug distribution with drug use amongst student-athletes, all while arguing the existence of a growing problem (up 1.5%), the efforts to construct this as a product of athletic culture and specifically an out-growth of football and basketball programs is telling.

The efforts to narrate a story specific to a college athletics, playing upon the sensationalism and particular stereotypes, has significant consequences. In isolating and confining the narrative to basketball courts and football stadium, the media representation continues the erasure of drug uses and criminal activity amongst college students. Most studies put drug use amongst college students at rates higher than general public, with almost 23% of college students meeting the clinical definition of alcohol or drug dependence.

Given the high rates of drug usage on college campuses, it shouldn’t be surprising that drug distribution occurs on college campuses and that it is carried out by students themselves. While rarely in the news, cases at San Diego State and Columbia, as well as recently at Reed and Union, drug dealing is rampant on college campuses, facilitated by a culture that sanctions drug use as “part of the college experience” and one that accepts a war on drug in someone else backyard. According to A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold, authors of Dorm Room Dealers, who spent 6-years examining drug distribution at a Southern California Private school, not only do students sell to other students, but do in a reckless manner, which in their mind highlight a sense of entitlement based on the students’ middle-class White identities.

Given the ways that the war on drugs has been waged against youth of color, particularly those living within urban communities, the media narrative at one level substantiates/ justifies the segregated nature of the war and at the same time gives illusion that war is being carried out in every community. By isolating drugs to college athletics, and playing on people’s racial assumptions regarding football and basketball, the TCU media coverage has once again imagined the problem of drug use/distribution and the efforts to police this problem through Blackness.

Evident in media coverage here, popular representations of college campuses, levels of policing and unzealous prosecution (reports already predict probation), it is no wonder that while African Americans constitute 13% of all monthly drug users, they represent 38% of these arrested for drug possession, 55% of convictions and 74% of prison sentences; in both the execution of the war on drugs and the media coverage, we see Jim Crow twenty-first century style. In practice and our imagination, the war on drugs has cordoned off America’s college and universities from policing and prosecution. The criminalization of Black and brown youth and the decriminalization of White America, particularly its middle-class college-bound constituency, have material consequences. The overall erasure of illicit activities and the efforts to blame/isolate criminal activity to student-athletes (Blackness in the mass imagination), provides a reminder of the ways in which “what it means to be criminal in our collective consciousness to what it means to be Black.” In other words, “the term Black criminal is nearly redundant… To be a Black man is to be thought of as a criminal, and to be a Black criminal is to be despicable – a social pariah” (Alexander 2010, p. 193). In wake of TCU, it seems that student-athlete and Black student-athlete are redundant so much so that as African Americans are constructed as pariahs off of college campuses, a different story doesn’t take place within the confines of America’s institutions of higher learning.


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris

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