Shane Ray’s pot citation

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Shane Ray, the highly touted linebacker out of Missouri was cited Monday night for possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana. He was pulled over for speeding and, according to reports, the officer smelled pot in his car, did a search and found the contraband. There is no indication that Ray had been toking in the car, so I have my questions about the search but what do I know.

Regardless, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ executive and current ESPN analyst Mark Dominik told Mike and Mike yesterday that Ray – a projected high to mid first round pick – had just tanked his draft stock. He’d shown horrible judgment, doing as stupid a thing you could do that close to the draft and, thereby, raising doubts about whether he’ll be ready to suit up and play on game days in the NFL. After all, Dominik said, the most important ability is availability. Golic joined in the lusty attack on Ray’s lack of sense. Both acknowledged that the legal and cultural climate around marijuana is changing dramatically. In some states, of course, what Ray did is not a crime. And it’s now clear to everyone who follows pro sports how widespread is recreational use of the substance. So the issue is not so much the pot but, again, the terrible judgment, one that could cost Ray millions of guaranteed dollars if, as Dominik predicted would happen, he fell to the third or fourth round.

To be clear, were I advising Ray, I too would have told him not to get in any trouble before the draft and would have been annoyed by this episode.

But good lord.

I will personally be surprised if, on the basis of this single incident, Ray falls nearly as far as Dominik predicts. Ray is a highly regarded young man, who emerged from very tough personal circumstances to be an elite performer. He has a good track record on the all important “character” scale. Recent injury concerns were already eating into his draft position. But he’s still considered a top prospect. Colin Cowherd was a welcome voice of reason on Ray, ridiculing Dominik’s doom and gloom assessment and noting that, if Ray is still sitting there when Pete Carroll drafts late in the second round, Ray will be snatched up by a Seahawks franchise that plays in a state where pot is legal and plenty of guys on the club undoubtedly light up (Greenie himself foresaw the Patriots grabbing Ray at the end of the first round and living happily ever after, because that’s just the way with the Belichick .

What rankles me about the reaction to Ray though goes beyond these particulars. One of the major stories of the opening weeks of the regular season has been the status of Josh Hamilton, the slugging outfielder with a history of substance abuse problems. Prior to the 2013 season, Hamilton signed a 5 year, $125 million contract with the Anaheim Angels. This off-season, he had another alcohol relapse and the Angels made clear that they no longer want Hamilton’s services.

Hamilton has been a much discussed player since he was the first player chosen in the 1999 amateur draft, a Raleigh kid with incredible natural talent. Hamilton wrestled for years with drug and alcohol addiction, which derailed his career. He finally appeared in the major leagues in 2007, having been reportedly sober since 2005, and quickly became a star, particularly with the Texas Rangers, with whom he played from 2008-2012. He was the American league MVP in 2010.

His two years with the Angels were disappointing, especially his injury-plagued 2014 season. With his relapse in February, the Angels clearly saw an opportunity to get out from under his contract. But a baseball arbitrator ruled that Hamilton did not violate baseball’s drug rules, much to the chagrin of Angels’ ownership. Nevertheless, they were able to trade him this week back to his old team, the Rangers (though they remain on the hook for most of his salary).

The discussion of Hamilton has proceeded in a generally somber, serious tone, noting his repeated struggles, considering the contractual and on-field implications for the teams involved and speculating about his future. What has been absent from any of the discussions I’ve heard is anything like gleeful contempt for his poor judgment, or harping on the fact that he ran the serious risk of costing himself millions of dollars (which a drug-related suspension would have triggered) or insistent questions about whether he possesses the attitude necessary to put his team first.

To be clear, I am not arguing that folks should talk about Hamilton in this way. I consider addiction to be far less a character issue than it is a brain chemistry one. But there is no disputing that Hamilton’s character and judgment – according to the widely agreed upon use of those terms by sports media – are vastly more open to question than Shane Ray’s.  I know that some people speak about addiction in really simplistic, judgmental and dopey terms, and Hamilton has received some of that treatment. But the difference in tone in discussions of Hamilton since news of his relapse broke, on the one hand, and the nearly unbridled contempt with which news of Ray’s hiccup has been treated on the other, are really striking.

Oh and, speaking of questionable judgment and character, leading to the possible undermining of one’s career and real concerns about a guy’s availability to help his team, anybody familiar with the story of a 2014 first round pick and recent enrollee in an alcohol rehab program, a guy named Johnny Manziel?

This is part of how race works. No one is looking at these athletes and saying – I am going to judge one of them more harshly, and on a tiny sliver of the evidence and observed behavior of that which would be necessary to judge other athletes because the former is black, and the other guys are white. It’s not like that. It’s just that a combination of deeply ingrained stereotypes, a tendency that we all have to identify more readily and easily with people who look familiar and a cultural context that allows some folks much longer leashes than others yields generally disparate treatment. The weirdly aggressive response this week to Ray’s arrest strikes me as in that vein.

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