How The SEC Can Stop The Problem Of Recreational Drug Use In College Football

Drug testing of student-athletes may be taking a new turn.  Earlier this spring, SEC school chancellors and presidents discussed a number of topics during the conference’s annual spring meetings.  One idea that was reportedly been floated, is a conference-wide substance abuse policy.  Currently, no conference has a conference-wide substance abuse policy in place to address recreational drug use by student-athletes.

Previously, it was thought that SEC presidents and chancellors could vote on the issue as early as May 31.  However, a vote did not come to fruition by the end of the conference’s spring meetings.  However, programs and coaches, including Georgia’s Mark Richt, have continued to voice support for a conference-wide drug policy.  The voicing support for a conference-wide drug policy comes as reports continue to circulate regarding the wide discrepancies as to how drug use is punished amongst SEC programs.

Recently, University of Georgia athletics director, Greg McGarity, noted, “At the SEC meeting in Destin, we proposed consistent penalties across the board, but our proposal gained no traction.  Therefore, the issue is moot unless it is brought up in the future.”

The question, then, is this an issue that the SEC as a conference should bring up in the near future?

Adoption of an SEC-wide recreational drug testing policy would be notable and likely well-received by college football fans and the general public alike.  As for college football fans and how they would receive such a policy, it is important to note that reports indicate that the sanctions imposed by SEC schools for recreational drug use by their student-athletes vary widely.  As such, adoption of a conference-wide substance abuse policy may remove some competitive advantages that certain SEC programs have.  An ESPN reportfound that four SEC schools—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and LSU—release student-athletes upon testing positive for drugs four times.  The rest of the SEC schools reportedly release student-athletes upon their third positive test.  The question, then, is what competitive advantage is gained by the schools who grant players an extra positive drug test?  Additionally, reports indicate that SEC schools differ largely in how many games a player is suspended for upon testing positive for recreational drugs a first time.  Some schools reportedly do not issue a suspension upon the first positive test, whereas others suspend players for ten-percent of a season.

It is notable, that at this time, it does not appear that a policy would consider performance enhancing drugs.  This is because the NCAA’s bylaws govern that issue.  Therefore, it is arguable that it would not impact a program’s competitive advantage.  However, an argument can be made that if one team’s star players are using recreational drugs and being punished less harshly than another team’s star players who are using recreational drugs, that a competitive advantage is gained.  It is this argument that SEC programs favoring the proposal may point to.

Notably, the winner of the last two SEC football championship games has been a school that reportedly allows its student-athletes to test positive for drugs four times prior to being released:  LSU and Alabama.  Additionally, in the last decade, the four schools allowing a higher number of positive drug tests before release have won the BCS National Championship Game seven times.  It is important to note, though, that it is unclear when the respective drug policy was adopted by those four schools.

In recent years, several SEC players have been suspended for recreational drug use.  The most notable, perhaps, was 2011 Heisman Trophy Finalist, Tyrann Mathieu, who was suspended for the 2012 LSU football season as a result of positive drug tests.  Yet, recent investigations into the recreational drug policies of SEC athletic departments revealed inconsistent sanctioningmeasures being executed across the conference.  Those inconsistencies not only exist in the SEC, but across college football, with conference’s members widely diverging in how they impose sanctions against student-athletes testing positive for recreational drugs.

Given this divergence, it is likely that the landscape of college athletics with respect to recreational drug use by student-athletes may soon shift.  In many regards, the SEC is seen as a leader in college sports, not only for its ability to win championships, but its ability to operate as a conference.  In this instance, its leaders have a chance to continue to be a leader by enacting a conference-wide drug testing and sanctioning policy which reasonably addresses the widespread issue of recreational drug use on college campuses.  Such a policy would not only quash SEC-wide criticism of various program’s policies, but would address the growing issue of recreational drug use by student-athletes.  One thing is certain:  If the SEC adopts such a policy, other conferences will follow suit.

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