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Why an NCAA-Wide Drug Policy is Necessary to Prevent the Georgia Bulldogs from Unilaterally Disarming Themselves

In the wake of the Jan Kemp scandal, the imposition of new standards for student-athletes at the University of Georgia made it more difficult for football players to be admitted to the institution in Athens than at other universities around the region. These heightened requirements were characterized by one highly-placed administrator as "unilateral disarmament." A quarter-century later, are the Georgia Bulldogs now unilaterally disarming themselves by enforcing elevated standards of a different sort?

Earlier today, vineyarddawg called our attention to a report indicating that Georgia is one of only two SEC schools to impose a minimum one-game suspension on athletes for an initial positive drug test. The Bulldogs’ primary division rivals, the Florida Gators, are one of four Division I-A teams with what FanHouse senior NCAA writer Brett McMurphy describes as "easily the nation’s most lenient policies," which permit players "up to five positive drug tests" prior to dismissal. Former NCAA director of enforcement and current Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe contends that such policies as Florida’s create "a competitive disadvantage."

Although such SEC schools as Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, and Mississippi State impose some of the nation’s "harshest penalties for a second positive test," at least half of the conference’s member institutions "allow more than three positive tests before dismissing a player," according to McMurphy’s report. The South Carolina Gamecocks, who previously booted players from the team after a second positive drug test, upped that number to four positive tests in 2005 before implementing a "three strikes and you’re out" rule in 2009.

Excluding Vanderbilt, a private university that declined to provide information to FanHouse, nine of eleven Southeastern Conference programs do not require a minimum suspension for a first positive test for recreational drugs; Georgia and Kentucky are the only two that impose a mandatory suspension for ten per cent of the season for an initial positive drug test. Only four SEC institutions (including Georgia) sit student-athletes for half of their games as a result of a second positive test.

In Gainesville, a second positive drug test gets a player the same suspension (10% of games) that a first positive drug test would get a player in Athens. Likewise, wayward Gators suffer the same punishment for fourth (50% of games) and fifth (dismissal) positive tests that misbehaving Bulldogs would receive for their second and third positive tests, respectively.

While Georgia’s Fulmer Cup victory brought forth snotty ridicule from folks who evidently lack the ability to draw fine distinctions, the reality is that Georgia enforces the league’s harshest anti-alcohol policy, and Doug Gillett has identified signs that Mark Richt may be making that policy even tougher. Evidently, the Bulldogs are equally committed to addressing recreational drugs, even though some of their conference coevals are not similarly inclined to take drug use seriously.

We already knew that Athens, home to multiple bars and draconian law enforcement, was a haven for alcohol-related offenses for athletes and non-athletes alike, ensuring that Georgia’s stringent anti-alcohol policy would produce punishments with teeth. Now we have to wonder whether the Bulldogs’ tougher anti-drug policies are putting the Red and Black at a competitive disadvantage to Florida, which is winning close games in Jacksonville with players conveniently reinstated to the roster while winning national championships with players like Percy Harvin, who reportedly failed a drug test at the NFL scouting combine.

Beebe believes such standards should be set and enforced at the school level because recreational drug use "doesn't get into the competition, the competitive piece. I think that it's better as an institutional decision within each school's own policy." The problem with Beebe’s approach is that it virtually assures a race to the bottom in which the lowest common denominator prevails, as teams that will do anything to win set ludicrously lax standards and their rivals are forced to cut corners to keep up or risk falling behind.

Ordinarily, I am not an advocate of centralizing authority at the national level, but setting a standard that is applicable throughout intercollegiate athletics is necessary in this instance. Georgia is unilaterally disarming itself by insisting that its student-athletes adhere to the law or be punished commensurately with their indiscretions. If insisting that scofflaw college football programs no longer treat recreational drug abuse by their players as a crime without a punishment is not an appropriate function for the NCAA, why do we have an NCAA?

Go ‘Dawgs!