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UGA's Drug Policy: Unilateral Disarmament And The SEC

Unlike its competitors, Georgia takes its drug-testing policy seriously. What's the point?

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When the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, I wrote a post about how athletic departments are conditioned to be willfully blind because they have to live at least two major lies:

So how does this happen? I would posit that athletic departments at major universities are places where the default response to any wrongdoing is to try to handle it in-house and to avoid reporting it to the appropriate authorities. Major college football and basketball, the games about which so many of us choose to obsess, live a lie in at least two major respects. First, those sports involve massive amounts of revenue paired with antiquated British rules enshrining amateurism as a defining value. The natural place for the money to flow is to the players who generate it, but the NCAA seeks to prevent that water from flowing to its natural destination: the players who create the revenue. Second, colleges and universities have to lower their academic standards in order to admit the players who can make the difference between winning and losing. They have to operate under the fiction that an individual with a 2.3 GPA and an 850 SAT score from a below-average urban or rural high school can compete academically with students whose credentials far out-strip those of the athlete and come from an environment that makes them much better prepared to process what the professor is saying, understand the assigned reading materials, and create coherent answers to difficult questions based on what they have learned over the course of a semester.

In light of the recent suspensions of Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo, reportedly for failing drug tests, I need to add a third closet in which athletic administrators are forced to reside: recreational drug use by players. Shockingly enough, college football players have active social lives. With the pressure of being high-profile athletes, they have more of a need to blow off steam than most students. They also tend to be popular, which leads to plenty of opportunities. These athletes live in a social environment where marijuana use is common and accepted, at least at most schools with major football programs. As a result, many college football players smoke weed. I am stating the obvious here.

So how does a college football program deal with the fact that a number of its players are likely to engage in an activity that is technically illegal, but that is also well within social norms on college campuses? My guess is that most schools deal with the issue by employing drug testing programs that are loosely enforced. Maybe testing is infrequent. Maybe the players can figure out when the tests are going to take place. Maybe the sanctions for violations are lenient, especially for first- and second-time offenders. Most college coaches would not want their players to be regular users, but the occasional off-season joint is not going to be the difference between catching a touchdown pass in October or dropping the ball.

Georgia has taken the opposite approach. UGA's penalties for positive drug tests are significantly tougher than those of every other public school in the SEC, save for Kentucky. For instance, Georgia and Kentucky are the only two public schools that have policies requiring suspensions for first offenses. In addition, UGA had the bright idea to test its players when they returned from spring break. Rambo's high school coach thinks that this isn't the best idea in the world:

"I think there’s five that were tested, all of them defensive guys," the Seminole County coach said. "To me, and I’m not condoning anything anybody has done. But I think it was a stupid thing to do to test college athletes the week after spring break. Unless they want to catch something. I doubt if there’s many universities out there that are testing their athletes the week after spring break."

Read more here:

In short, whereas most schools in the SEC tacitly admit that they are going to have players who will use pot on a recreational basis and try to manage the situation to ensure that the players don't go overboard, Georgia is caught up in actively trying to ferret out any evidence of marijuana use among its players. The Dawgs have not gotten the memo that has made the rounds in the rest of the SEC.

To me, this is insanely stupid behavior on the part of the Georgia football program. First, and most obviously, the Dawgs are putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Georgia's drug testing policy is the equivalent of other schools getting to pay their players a stipend and Georgia deciding that the values of amateurism are paramount. This doesn't just mean that Georgia is more likely to have suspensions; it also has recruiting implications. Opposing coaches would have to be careful in making this point - "we won't care about your spliff consumption like those prudes up in Athens will" doesn't sound like the best pitch - but they can certainly make the point that a player is less likely to be suspended at their schools.*

* - To pre-empt a potential analogy, this factor distinguishes Georgia football from employers that use drug-testing programs to ensure that they have a productive workforce. Coca-Cola isn't going to lose market share to Pepsi as a result of drug-testing its hourly employees. Additionally, there's a big difference between testing someone at work and testing them when they are months from having to fulfill the key requirements of their "jobs."

Second, the testing program as applied has nothing to do with performance on the field. There is a certain logic to testing players during the season or in the lead-up to the season, but what is the point of conducting tests months before the season and weeks before spring practice? Even if you assume that Georgia's testing program has some link to on-field issues, the way that the program was applied in this case has nothing to do with that goal.

Third, if Georgia is choosing to unilaterally disarm, then why do so over the subject of marijuana usage? Georgia and Florida have admirably been ahead of the curve in the SEC on the subject of oversigning. They have incurred something of a disadvantage relative to the teams in the SEC West, but they have done so with the interests of their players at heart. Likewise, Georgia might have higher academic standards than some of the other schools in the conference. Again, as an academic institution, there is value in incurring a slight disadvantage to ensure that Georgia brings in players who are more able to compete academically and then that the players they bring in get a little more out of the classroom experience. In contrast, there is no rational reason to take a stand on marijuana usage.

Georgia's football program is in an interesting place right now. The Dawgs' head coach is a well-liked coach who is pretty clearly a B+ head man competing for titles against an A+ coach in the state to the west. The fan base is fiercely loyal and turns out for every game, but one has to wonder whether they will continue to make significant donations for the privilege to buy tickets to increasingly soft home schedules. How much do Georgia fans really want Mark Richt to play the role of Joe Friday when the conference is hyper-competitive? Do they really want to pay hundreds of dollars per ticket to see back-ups because the starters smoked pot on spring break?

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.