If you didn’t already know that Georgia had one of the SEC’s tougher drug and alcohol policies, the past week or so should have taken care of that. To a lot of people, Georgia’s position on testing probably seems to be, as Michael Elkon put it, “unilateral disarmament.” He’s left scratching his head and wondering why Georgia (or any program) would willfully do this to themselves.
The answer goes back to early 2006, and it has to do with what was going on around the UGA campus. University President Michael Adams, as early as his 2005 State of the Univeristy address, showed concern over the school’s reputation as a party school and its impact on “academic rigor.” Two high-profile events within the next year helped to turn that concern into momentum for campus-wide action: 1) the drug and alcohol-related death of student Lewis Fish and 2) the trashing of campus following the 2005 Auburn game.
By that point, the issue had moved from airy speeches to the editorial pages. The reaction was swift. New policies were put in place across campus that affected everyone from the underage freshman to the football tailgater. The actions and policies ranged from the prudent to the puzzling to the reactionary. See if any of these ring a bell:
- University police began arresting students for underage possession rather than citing them.
- Georgia announced new tailgating restrictions for the 2006 season including some controversial “family-friendly” tailgating zones.
- President Adams and Florida’s Bernie Machen launched a campaign against the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” moniker for the football game in Jacksonville.
- Georgia introduced “a comprehensive set of new penalties for students who violate UGA’s drug and alcohol policy” which included everything from a parental notification to automatic suspension from the University.
It’s no coincidence that policies meant to take aim at student drinking and drug use were accompanied by changes to the football game day experience. There is perhaps no more visible symbol of Georgia’s “party school” reputation than a football weekend – especially the football weekend in Jacksonville. The tug-of-war between the football fan and the University continues today with tweaks taking place on almost an annual basis.
In such a climate, it’s easy to see how the athletic department’s internal policies came under review. With the University cracking down on the general student population and teaming up with the Athletic Assosciation to clean up tailgating, Georgia’s guidelines for acceptable student-athlete behavior had to face scrutiny.
So in July of 2006, we ended up with this. It’s the current athletic department policy for Georgia student-athletes. It’s not a football-only policy, and, while Damon Evans and other athletics administrators might have had input, it is very much in the spirit of the more general campus-wide policies put into place around the same time.
Elkon asks “whether the current stance taken by the Georgia athletic department is the result of media attention paid to off-field issues.” The answer is, indirectly, “yes.” It’s no defense of the policy, but its existence and content makes more sense when you understand that it was much more the fruit of a top-down initiative from the University than it was any kind of organic pet project of Mark Richt or his direct higher-ups. In fact, some of the first student-athletes facing serious discipline for drug or alcohol-related incidents ran afoul not of any football team policy but mandatory University policies (see: Akeem Hebron).
With the origins of the policy understood, the next question is what can or should be done about Georgia’s very real disadvantage relative to its competition.
Should anything be done? Georgia has certainly left itself little wiggle room with its policy, but as Elkon concedes there are several areas where schools chart a course that might be considered detrimental in the context of building a competitive football program – oversigning and academics are two good examples.
It’s difficult to guess how a walk-back of the policy would be taken. Critics would certainly pounce on the timing – do you have standards only until the point that they begin to adversely affect the football program? We’re also talking about sanctioning drug use. That might not seem like such a big deal to many people, and it’s a reality of life on campus, but it’s possibly unacceptable to others who face zero-tolerance policies in their own daily lives.
It’s also not a sure thing that the University would sign off on just any revision. The motivations for a crackdown present in 2006 are for the most part still a fact of life in Athens, and the administration would certainly be aware of the mixed message it would be sending to the rest of the University community by allowing the athletic department to soften its policies without cause.
That’s not to say that the current policy is set in stone. The UGA policy itself has been modified since 2006. In 2010, the policy was amended to remove an automatic suspension after a second drug or alcohol-related arrest. That didn’t mean that the second arrest carried no consequences; it just “was designed to differentiate between a student caught with a beer in a dorm refrigerator and a DUI-related offense,” as the administration explained. The current campus-wide policy was revised in October of 2011.
Should this be an area where the SEC steps in and normalizes policies across the league? I’m not so sure. It would certainly give schools like Georgia an out by removing any competitive disadvantage, though I don’t see why schools wouldn’t be able to put in place policies that go beyond a minimum standard. I also don’t know if it’s a good idea for schools to cede more authority to the conference instead of making – and living with – their own policies that reflect their own priorities and standards.