Georgia's strict drug policy noble, but puts Dawgs at disadvantage
Georgia gets bad rap for frequent drug arrests, but it has stricter policy than most
Athletic department believes UGA program can win without compromising values
Bulldogs will be without two of their top defenders in September after suspensions
Certainly by now you've heard the joke Steve Spurrier made in April concerning the Georgia football program's early-season slate. "I sort of always liked playing them that second game," Spurrier told ESPN.com's Chris Low, "because you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended."
It's classic Spurrier, gigging the school that has been a rival since he was a college freshman in 1963. But everyone laughed because the joke is rooted in truth. Spurrier made the crack less than two weeks after multiple outlets reported that two key Georgia defenders would miss multiple games because of failed drug tests. Two of the best players on a stacked defense getting suspended is certainly a problem -- especially when Georgia must play a division game at Missouri on Sept. 8.
It wouldn't be as big of a problem if All-America safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alec Ogletree played almost anywhere other than Georgia.
(Georgia officials are forbidden by athletic department rules from commenting on drug test results. The only independent confirmation came from Rambo's high school coach, who told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chip Towers that Rambo ate pot brownies while on spring break and tested positive. Coach Alan Ingram of Seminole County High in Donalsonville, Ga., told the paper the positive test was Rambo's second strike in Georgia's drug testing program and that it triggered an automatic four-game suspension. Ingram also told the paper that Rambo told him linebacker Ogletree faced a similar suspension, but no one connected to Ogletree has confirmed or denied anything.)
The Bulldogs' substance-abuse policy is a prime example of the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished world of major college sports. Georgia tries to do the right thing by creating one of the toughest anti-drug policies in the nation, but that policy makes the Bulldogs the butt of jokes and could cost the football team wins.
Georgia's policy calls for a 10-percent of the season (one game in football) suspension for the first offense and a 30-percent of the season (four games in football) suspension for a second positive. At all but two other schools in the SEC (Kentucky and Mississippi State), a player who tests positive the first time does not miss a game. At Alabama and LSU, the two programs that faced off for the national title last year, a second positive test forces a suspension of at most two games. At Florida, a second positive for marijuana results in a one-game suspension. (To see a conference-by-conference list of athletic department drug policies, check out the one compiled by CBSSports.com's Brett McMurphy in November.) By dinging players for one game on the first positive and four on the second, Georgia's substance-abuse policy hurts the program in two ways:
1. It puts the program at a competitive disadvantage by forcing suspensions when rival programs offer mulligans.
2. It harms the reputation of the program by allowing media and fans to easily identify first-time offenders who would have remained anonymous at most schools.
The policy may help from a competitive standpoint by keeping drug use from becoming a more widespread problem, but that's difficult to argue when rivals with similar resources and more lenient drug policies have had better on-field results than Georgia in recent years. Athletic director Greg McGarity and football coach Mark Richt hear these criticisms all the time. When they travel the state raising money in the offseason, they must often answer questions about the drug policy. McGarity answers quite forcefully.
"If we get beat up for that, it's fine," McGarity told SI.com, "because it's the right thing to do."
McGarity believes some things are more important than winning, or, to put it another way, that programs can win without compromising values.* "I think there's a large percentage of our society that embraces what we do," McGarity said. "Life is all about choices that people make, and what we're trying to do is impact someone not only for this four-year window that they're in our institution. We're also trying to create decisions that will last a lifetime." McGarity's argument is this: If a one-game suspension during college makes a former Georgia athlete think twice about hitting the bong a week before he takes a drug test for a new job, then the program works. "While the message may be stern and the lessons may be very difficult," McGarity said, "our goal here is to prepare them for society and to be successful in their next step."
*I realize there are quite a few of you reading this who feel recreational marijuana use should not be lumped in with the use of more hardcore drugs. That is a worthy debate for another day. At the moment, pot remains illegal, and almost every athletic department in the nation tests for it.
McGarity's is a noble stance, but it's also a stance that seems at odds with the current culture in college sports. Coaches who don't win get fired. Athletic directors whose football and men's basketball coaches don't win get fired. At some point, this policy could cost Richt and/or McGarity their jobs. Of course, if McGarity softened the policy, he would get ripped for compromising Georgia's morals for victories. He truly cannot win in this case. Also, it's highly unlikely the NCAA or any conference would issue a uniform drug policy because testing laws vary from state to state.
Richt has to answer as many questions about the policy as McGarity. As he enters his 12th season in Athens, Richt has dealt with more than his share of disciplinary issues. The arrest tally on his watch would match just about anyone in the nation, but Richt also has been consistent about throwing players off the team after repeat mistakes -- or in some cases one big mistake. Richt makes millions of dollars, but like most coaches, he truly does seem to want to teach his players something they can use out in the wide world after they leave Georgia. During a visit to Athens about a week before the Rambo/Ogletree news broke, I asked Richt about dealing with misbehaving players. He explained that he tries to help even the players he throws off the team. For players guilty of offenses that don't merit dismissal, he tries to make the punishments harsh enough so they don't commit the act that gets them tossed. "That's called coaching," Richt said. "It's called teaching. It's called parenting. ... I hate it more than anything in my job."
A lot of people got mad when I wrote this column after Oregon coach Chip Kelly suspended quarterback Jeremiah Masoli for a year in early 2010 when the Ducks had a roster perfectly positioned to win a second consecutive Pac-10 title. Those people missed the obvious sarcasm. (C'mon, the Moses reference was a dead giveaway.) I praised Kelly for trying to use discipline to change Masoli's bad behavior instead of enabling the guy because he could run the offense really well. The administrators and coaches at Georgia deserve the same praise for taking a stand on an issue they consider critical to the health and development of their athletes, but all they'll get is grief. If Rambo and Ogletree don't play at Missouri and the Bulldogs lose and drop behind the eight-ball in the SEC East race, how many fans will forgive because Richt and McGarity were trying to teach a valuable lesson? Not many.
The reason a lot of people missed the sarcasm in that Oregon column was because -- when read literally -- it was fundamentally true. There really is no benefit in major college sports to trying to do the right thing. The glory and the money go to those who win titles, not to those who crank out the best citizens.
Think about that if you see Georgia playing shorthanded in September. The Bulldogs have no incentive to try so hard to keep their players from using drugs, yet they try anyway.