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Kolton Houston's Continuing Ineligibility: Why Does the NCAA Hate Science and Reason?

We learned this week that Kolton Houston, who had been the Georgia Bulldogs' projected starter at right tackle coming out of spring practice, remains ineligible, as determined by the NCAA, due to testing positive for a "banned substance". He may become eligible at any time or never. Obviously, this is an important story because we have legitimate concerns about the offensive line heading into 2012. Beyond what it means for the Dawgs' season, however, it raises some significant concerns about the NCAA's policies and their enforcement.

Let's get this out of the way first: we here at Dawg Sports do not condone the use of performance-enhancing drugs by our athletes or anyone else.* Hank Aaron holds the Major League Baseball home run record. We support rules and enforcement to protect the health of students and fairness of competition. Is that what's happening here? No.

When I first decided to write about the issue, the plan was to provide a short summary. If that's what you want, here's the first draft:

Houston remains ineligible because he continues to test over the allowable threshold for a banned substance. The regular testing over the last two and one-half years conclusively shows that he has not used said substance in that time. Some of these things are simply very slow to metabolize. There is no indication that the level of the substance in his system is such that he would receive any performance-enhancing benefit from said substance. The NCAA is taking a hard-line approach: as long as there's this number, he can't play. There is zero consideration given to the reasons behind banning substances in the first place -- athlete health and unfair advantage.

McGarity wrote a letter to NCAA president Emmert that said, basically, "You're f**king kidding me." Emmert eventually responded by saying, "I can't believe UGA would use science and try to look after the well-being of this kid. How dare you question us with your ridiculous concerns?"


I have a little bit more detail for you (and poll!), if you're interested, after the jump.

Kolton Houston, son of former UGA linebacker Shane Houston, committed to Georgia in April 2009. For a little perspective, he was in the same recruiting class as Hutson Mason, Ken Malcome, and the A. Ogletrees, all of whom have seen action on the field the past two seasons with the exception of Malcome, who redshirted in 2010. Houston (whose dreamy recruiting profile includes such entries as 2010 Under Armour All-American, AJC 2009 Super 11 honoree, ESPNU150, #6 OG in his class per has not played a down of football as a Bulldog.

Houston enrolled in January 2010. UGA administers drug tests on athletes, as does the NCAA. In April 2010, Houston tested positive for a substance banned by the NCAA. We understand it was 19-norandrosterone, an anabolic steroid prohibited by the NCAA as a performance-enhancing drug (PED). It turns out this drug was administered to Houston for the purpose of helping him recover from shoulder surgery in 2009 when he was still in high school. There is no evidence that he took the drug for any other reason or even that he knowingly accepted the administration of a banned substance. The positive test rendered him ineligible for NCAA competition.

I have a little bit of knowledge and experience with laboratory testing for substances (not from being tested, mind you, but from having held a job years ago where I collected specimens for testing and as a lawyer whose cases occasionally involve testing). To protect against false positives and allow for the fact that some substances (including the one at issue here) can appear naturally in trace amounts, testing protocols set a threshold. That is, even if a specimen tests positive for the substance, it will be considered negative unless it appears in an amount higher than the threshold.

Once UGA was aware of the positive test and the reason for it (the aforementioned surgery), the University embarked on a plan. Assuming Houston did not take the substance again, his body would metabolize it. Over time, it would disappear from his system or, at least, fall below the positive threshold. Since April 2009, Georgia has tested Houston from time to time, and the results show that the amount of the substance is decreasing, albeit very slowly.

Pursuant to the NCAA Division I Manual, a student-athlete who tests positive for a banned substance is declared ineligible. For the first offense, the ineligibility persists for at least a year, including one full season. (NCAA Bylaws, 31.2.3) If there is a second positive test for a banned substance, other than a "street drug", the athlete loses all remaining eligibility. In other words, two strikes and you're out. If you're interested in reading the bylaws, a PDF copy of the NCAA Manual is available for download here.

In February 2011, Houston underwent a second NCAA-administered screen and again tested positive for the banned substance. Based on the aforementioned bylaws, he was declared permanently ineligible. Fortunately, the NCAA Manual, in bylaw, provides for the appeal of such a ruling for the purpose of challenging the duration of ineligibility. If an NCAA committee agrees, eligibility can be granted after the exhaustion of the reduced ineligibility period and a negative test. The NCAA heard and agreed with UGA's appeal. The basis of the NCAA's decision was that Georgia's tests indicating decreasing levels showed that this second positive was conclusively not the result of continued or repeat use of the banned substance, but evidence of the original 2009 use -- evidence the NCAA already had and with which it had already dealt. However, because it still was a positive test, Houston was declared indefinitely ineligible, even if not permanently ineligible.

So Georgia continued to test. And Houston's test results continued to decline. Unfortunately, those results have not declined to a level below the NCAA's accepted threshold. As a result of documents released this week**, we've learned that the University has been working hard to help Houston and the team. In addition to the frequent testing, UGA has provided treatment in an effort to speed along the metabolism process and consulted a number of experts. Ron Courson, associate athletic director for sports medicine, explained in a letter to Greg McGarity that, scientifically, the test results show that (a) Houston has not used the banned substance at any time since the April 2010 positive test, and (b) the levels of the substance currently in Houston's system provide zero performance-enhancing advantage. Notwithstanding these unchallenged facts, the NCAA has refused to declare Houston eligible to compete.

McGarity wrote to NCAA president Mark Emmert in a further effort to gain Houston's eligibility. As UGA did following the second positive test in February 2011, Georgia cited the science in favor of the position. In response, Emmert expressed "surprise" that McGarity would seek an exception, and stood by the ruling of ineligibility.

As Blutarsky pointed out, Emmert's "surprise" is surprising: appeals and exceptions exist for a reason. It might have been surprising if the NCAA had never before considered a banned-substance eligibility appeal on the basis of scientific evidence offered by a school and athlete. But there happens to be precedence for such consideration: this very case, following the February 2011 test.

I read the pertinent bylaws, but I did not try to research the NCAA Manual equivalent of "legislative intent". With that caveat, I think it's safe to assume three things about the eligibility in question.

  1. The NCAA prohibits the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) in order to discourage their harmful use and to preserve the integrity of competition on the field.
  2. By not declaring permanent ineligibility on the first positive test, the NCAA recognizes that it is possible for an athlete who may have tested positive for a PED not to have any performance advantage from the prior use indicated by that test.
  3. By expressly providing for appeals and exceptions in its bylaws, the NCAA by design is open to reinstating the eligibility of a student-athlete who has tested positive for a PED. Although the required showing is not expressly set forth, here are a couple of possibilities that make sense, in light of the goals described in 1., above: (a) use of the substance and, therefore, the harmful effects thereof, have been adequately and conclusively eliminated; and (b) no unfair advantage can be gained by the prior use.

Since UGA conclusively has shown both discontinued use (indeed, "use" is a bit of a stretch in the first place, since the substance in question was administered by a physician for medical purposes and not voluntarily taken by the athlete in order to give himself an unfair advantage) and the absence of an unfair advantage on the field, seeking his eligibility not only is unsurprising, it's also expected and justified.

But wait, there's more. NCAA bylaw provides a medical exception. The NCAA Executive Committee can grant an exception to the banned-substance policy if the athlete can show a medical need for regular use of the substance. This does not apply here, specifically, because there is no need (nor desire) for Houston to make "regular use" of the substance in question. However, at least in the opinion of one physician at the time of Houston's shoulder surgery in 2009, he apparently did have a medical need for it, at least arguably. If an athlete can use a banned substance regularly and during eligible competition upon a medical showing (apparently without regard to any competitive benefit), why can't an athlete have used a banned substance exclusively in the remote past and still compete, especially when there is no competitive advantage from the past use?

Supposedly, if a test shows that Houston's system successfully metabolizes the substance down to a level below the NCAA's threshold, he'll be able to play the next game. But we don't know when, if ever, that will happen. In the meantime, he's forced to sit and watch even though the purposes of the banned substances policy is not being furthered at all.

Now, I can think of a few persuasive arguments for maintaining the ineligibility, but if Emmert can't make a decent case, I'm not going to make it for him (unless you ask).


*(I used to cycle about 85 miles each week, every other day after work; about an hour before I started my ride, I drank a cup of coffee for the specific purpose of enhancing my performance.)

**Edit: More of the released docs can be found here. (h/t Dawgs2011 from comment below)