Warner Robins football player CJ Harris hoped to fulfill a dream that had been threatened by seizures when Auburn gave him a preferred walk-on opportunity in February. But three months later, the medication that brought Harris’ life back to normal will now keep him from playing for the Tigers.
The latest development, which was first reported by WGXA’s Cam Gaskins, has derailed Harris’ plans. Per WGXA, “After Auburn coaches and staff took a second look at his medical records, they told Harris' father Curtis that his son could not compete in NCAA athletics while he was taking cannabis oil.”
The news is disheartening for Harris, especially because he and his father, Curtis, were upfront with the Tigers about his health needs. Curtis said he told Auburn secondary coach Greg Brown about his son’s condition and cannabis oil usage when Harris first landed on Brown’s radar.
“Obviously, I always like to be forthright with everybody as far as what CJ’s medical condition is,” Curtis Harris said in March. “I know that can be a big hindrance into whether or not they want to have him. Even when I started reaching out to Coach [Brown], I put the article about CJ’s story in my texts. We actually never really touched on it after that. He really didn’t say nothing.”
Curtis told Gaskins telling his son the news was "the hardest thing I’ve done."
"You're taking something away from a kid who's worked so hard in his life to get there," Curtis told WGXA. "And you're just taking it away because he's taking a medication that's helping with his disability."
Per NCAA rules, athletes are not permitted to have any tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in their systems. Hailey’s Hope — the cannabis oil Harris takes for his seizures — contains less than 0.3 percent THC, according to the label.
Harris suffered his first seizure when he was 14 years old. One year later, the seizures returned with more frequency, occurring two or three times per month. Harris was diagnosed with epilepsy and was first given a medication that did not stop the seizures.
Eventually, Curtis heard about cannabis oil as a potential treatment for his son.
It took about one year for Harris to legally obtain the cannabis oil. The treatment was the first to not only end his seizures, but also keep his personality intact. Curtis also said Harris’ previous seizure medication affected his concentration and engagement, which in turn affected his schoolwork.
“[With the cannabis oil], my family and people at my school noticed a change in me right away,” Harris said. “They all said I wasn’t myself on the anticonvulsant medication.”
Harris attended First Presbyterian Day for the start of his high school career, and during that time he would keep the medication — which he had to take orally once every six hours — in his backpack. When he transferred to Warner Robins, however, the public high school would not allow him to keep the oil with him because the school is a drug-free zone.
Harris played football at his two high schools despite his seizures. An unusual interaction between his father and Brown brought the chance to play football in the SEC.
Curtis sent film of his son to Brown for an honest evaluation and guidance on where Harris should go to school. Curtis did so expecting the Tigers assistant to recommend a lower-level school; Instead, Brown said Auburn was the place for Harris.
“We kept going back and forth through texts,” Curtis said. “I was actually talking to him about if he knew of a good junior college for CJ to go to. He had offers at other places, but I knew he wanted to play there. I figured maybe getting him into a junior college and getting more exposure would give him a better opportunity.
“That’s when coach kind of told me, ‘I would love to have him. We could really use him.’”
Harris’ situation comes at a time when cannabis oil’s medical usage is still new to college athletics. That much was clear from the off-base explanations Harris and his father were given through the recruiting process.
Along with Brown’s near-silence on the subject, Curtis said a coach at Lenoir-Rhyne University told him as long as Harris had medical permission and a prescription for the oil, it wouldn’t be a problem. As it was explained to Curtis, his son would be given a baseline test for the THC in his system; that test’s results would then be used as a measuring stick against any of Harris’ future tests.
Even though cannabis oil is becoming a more popular form of treatment for a variety of illnesses, the NCAA does not plan to amend its rules on its use.
“While the NCAA committee that oversees health and safety issues has discussed medical marijuana and CBD products at recent meetings, it has not recommended changes to NCAA policy,” NCAA media relations representative Christopher Radford said in an email. “This means that THC is still classified as a banned drug for student-athletes.”
Now that playing at Auburn appears off the table, Harris is looking at NAIA schools as well as some junior college programs. Harris also plans to seek advice from some new doctors, who could possibly recommend a different treatment for his seizures.
Auburn’s late discovery meant Harris had to choose between being a Tiger and living seizure free. Although playing at Auburn was something he aspired to do since he was a child, Harris made it evident in February that life wouldn’t be the same without his medication.
“The oil has allowed me to live a normal life again,” Harris said. “The things other people my age can take for granted — swimming, driving a car, riding a bike — the oil gives me the ability to do those things without fear for my safety or the safety of those around me.
“It’s my prayer that I will never have to choose between the oil that helps me lead a normal teenage life and the sport I love.”