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ESPN's story on Auburn's spice 'epidemic' is as synthetic as the drug

Drugs are bad for you. So is writing a misleading, useless and unjustifiably self-promotional story about drugs. Why did this happen?


[Dakota] Mosley's attorney, Davis Whittelsey, said he will argue in court that Auburn was more concerned with covering up drug tests than getting students counseling for the highly addictive drug, which is linked to about 11,000 emergency room visits a year.

"Could Auburn have done more? Hell, yeah," Whittelsey said. "Not only could they have done more, they should have done more."

The short of it? The above blockquote is all you need to know about ESPN's report on the "epidemic" synthetic marijuana use afflicting Auburn's football program from January 2011 to August 2011.

Mosley, charged with five counts of first-degree robbery, one count of first-degree burglary and one count of third-degree theft of property, is scheduled to go on trial June 10. The former freshman tight end is one of the four former Auburn players allegedly involved in a March 11, 2011 armed home invasion, and Mosley's defense is arguing that his use of the drug influenced him to participate. (We should note that spice indeed can make people do crazy things and is actually dangerous.)

If Mosley's legal team can convincingly blame Auburn for not curbing his use of the drug, then there's a defense. ESPN's story uses the word "emboldened" to describe the effect Auburn's handling of his drug use allegedly had on him.

The ESPN story notes Auburn didn't start testing for spice until "after it won the national championship in January 2011," implying Gene Chizik's program deliberately sold out the health of its players for a crystal football. Author Shaun Assael said in an in-house interview, "What we don't know is how many players would've tested positive before [the 2010 BCS National Championship]," but offers no indication there's evidence connecting the game's date and the introduction of testing in any way.

What we also don't know is how many players would've tested positive if Auburn had started testing for LSD in the year 1939. So what?

When asked how much he thinks Auburn's title run "played into" the spice issue, Assael sidestepped the question and said a player claimed Auburn "didn't want the media to get ahold of this, and that's why they were covering - he said covering it up."

In fact, the NCAA didn't notify its member schools about the drug until December 13, 2010, less than a month before that game. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs says the school began testing for spice 17 days after the game and three days after a test was made available by its testing company. Jacobs also claims that "in the fall of 2010," Auburn asked the company to develop a spice test and that every player was made aware of the drug's dangers.

The drug didn't go on the NCAA's banned substances list until August 2011, right when Auburn officially added it to its own banned list, according to ESPN.

When Auburn did and didn't test for spice isn't an issue, despite it being framed that way in ESPN's story. It was sold over the counter in the state of Alabama until October 2011, and the United States government didn't permanently ban it until July 2012 (the DEA imposed a temporary "emergency" ban in March 2011, after Auburn had already been voluntarily testing for it).

You're reading this right: ESPN expects Auburn University's football program to field a far more aggressive anti-drug campaign than the DEA's. What bullshit.

In fact, try and find an incident of any school punishing a player for synthetic marijuana before August 2011. The only ones I can find - at any point - are LSU's Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon and Spencer Ware being suspended for one game in October 2011 and a Kentucky high school quarterback being suspended in November 2011.

What's at issue is what Auburn did with the test results, not that it was under legal obligation to do anything. According to ESPN, 12 players failed drug tests during the period between the onset of drug testing and August. It's not made clear in the story whether Mosley is the source of that number, but a "half the team" estimate is attributed to former receiver Antonio Goodwin, currently sentenced to 15 years for the same robbery. (That estimate calls to mind the arrested TCU player's ridiculous claim that 82 players had failed a 2012 drug test.)

According to Auburn, only 3 percent of its roster tested positive, which would've been about four or five players if true. reports eight players tested positive between January and March, during "trial" testing. But let's roll with 12, for argument's sake.

Counting outgoing seniors, juniors leaving early for the NFL and early enrollees, there would've been approximately 75 players tested, presumably multiple times, during this period. If 12 is the correct number, then 16 percent of the team tested positive at some point between January and August 2011 for a drug that was not illegal and was not on the NCAA's banned substances list, and 12 might not even be the right number.

Not to quibble about language, but is that an "epidemic," and is it out of line with what other schools were dealing with? And other schools were dealing with it, including multiple ones SB Nation is aware of.

Auburn reportedly "kept the results secret, even from the parents of the players," despite contact between coaches and the parents of players who'd failed tests. On camera, Assael added that current head coach and then-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was allegedly approached for help with spice addiction by a player, which we can presume is either tight end Mosley's or wide receiver Goodwin's claim. Assael says Malzahn denies the claim.

Auburn claims it called and wrote to parents including Mosley's, but specifies it wrote to Mosley's father about a failed test for "regular marijuana." reports two parents claim to have been contacted by Auburn about failed spice tests, one of them in either May or June of 2011.

Mosley's claims that he failed tests "six or seven" times are Mosley's claims, despite being presented as fact in the ESPN story, and must be considered in light of his legal defense. Mosley claims his final failed test came a day before his arrest, while former running back Michael Dyer testified in court that three of the four arrested players (Mosley, Goodwin and receiver Shaun Kitchens) had smoked spice just before the robbery. Assael, in that same ESPN interview, describes Mosley and company as "players who as a result of smoking spice - they say - committed a robbery."

Jacobs (apparently the "highest levels of the university" described in the story's lede) defended to ESPN his department's treatment of the drug, saying, "We did all we could do to educate our student-athletes until [we] could understand exactly what we're dealing with. I think just like the rest of the campus, and the nation, we were trying to figure it out."

Synthetic marijuana sounds like something that should've been on an athletic director's radar in early 2011. But, as a check of Google Trends shows, synthetic marijuana wasn't a big deal until it, well, was a big deal:

(And, yeah, there are no perfect search terms to use here, since spice and K2 usually refer to things far more popular than chemical drugs.)

It doesn't appear spice became A Known Thing until late 2010, right around the time Jacobs claims Auburn requested a test and informed its players and just before the NCAA announced it would be added to the governing body's banned substances list in nine months. Compare its renown to the old-fashioned stuff:

So what are we really left with here?

  • Four Auburn players were arrested on robbery charges after using a behavior-altering drug.
  • Those players had been tested by Auburn for that drug for almost two months, despite the NCAA not requiring Auburn to do so for another five months and the drug being arguably legal.
  • At least one of them claims to have failed multiple tests, though those were during what reports as a "trial" period.
  • Auburn claims it made the parents of those players aware of failed drug tests, but not specifically failed synthetic marijuana tests.
  • A portion of one player's legal defense appears to be attributing actions to the drug's influence and Auburn's failure to protect him from it.
  • Since the NCAA's investigation into Cam Newton's Auburn recruitment, the school has been subject to just about every allegation you can think of, and nobody can get much of anything to stick. Colleague Mark Ennis has referred to the quest to bring down Auburn as "the journalistic sword in the stone."
  • On Wednesday, former safety Mike McNeil, also among the four arrested players, was the center of a report by Selena Roberts accusing the school of meddling with his police investigation.
  • It sparked national attention, was discussed by every sports outlet and became college football's biggest story of the week.
  • A day later, ESPN released a similar report.