The Georgia Athletic Association changed its student-athlete substance abuse policy in June, opening the door for two of its top defensive players to return two games before they would have under the previous policy.
Junior linebacker Alec Ogletree and All-American safety Bacarri Rambo returned Saturday after serving four-game suspensions. Ogletree and Rambo reportedly tested positive on random drug tests in March, after eating marijuana-laced brownies, according to several published reports.
After two offenses, according to the 2011-12 student-athlete handbook, “the student-athlete will be suspended from competition during the athletic season for no less than 50% of the total sport season if either of the two (2) offenses is a DUI or involves a controlled substance.”
The failed tests were both players’ second student-conduct offenses. Rambo was suspended for the first game of the 2011 season after he was pulled over for speeding and a marijuana joint was found in the purse of a passenger who was riding in his car. He was not charged in the incident, but school officials were informed. Ogletree was charged with theft by taking as a freshman, accused of stealing a scooter helmet from a fellow athlete in 2010.
But in the 2012-13 handbook, which was updated June 1, three months after Rambo and Ogletree’s transgressions became public, the policy excluded the term “controlled substances.” The new policy reads: “The student-athlete will be suspended from competition during the athletic season for no less than 30 [percent] of the total sport season. If either of the two offenses is a DUI, the competition suspension will be no less than 50 [percent] of the total sport season.”
University officials dispute any changes were made in Georgia’s substance abuse policy. Senior Associate Athletic Director Claude Felton said marijuana “would not be included in that controlled substance clause.”
Director of Sports Medicine Ron Courson said the policy hadn’t changed in regard to marijuana-related offenses, because marijuana was not interpreted as a controlled substance by the athletic association.
“We have changed absolutely nothing from a penalty standpoint,” Courson said. “Marijuana is not a controlled substance. A controlled substance, they’re talking about prescription narcotics that are used illegally.”
But the state and federal government disagree. Marijuana is included under the list of Schedule 1 Controlled Substances in the state of Georgia and is listed as a controlled substance under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. Marijuana is also listed in the NCAA List of Banned Substances.
Having the services of Ogletree and Rambo proved important for the Bulldogs in their 51-44 win against Tennessee last week. Ogletree led the team with 14 tackles, while Rambo was second with nine. This week the Bulldogs face the biggest game of the season when they face No. 6 South Carolina, which would have been the last game of a six-game suspension.
Courson said a strictly marijuana-related second offense would have always resulted in a minimum of 30 percent of games suspended.
But Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2011 the suspension for a failed drug test as a second offense is a 50 percent game suspension.
Since the Athletic Association does not report failed drug tests or suspensions of student-athletes, there was no way to confirm how the policy has been interpreted in the past. But former Bulldog tight end Bruce Figgins was suspended for the first six games of the 2009 season after failing a drug test for a second time, according to ESPN.com.
Georgia had one of the stingiest substance abuse policies in the Southeastern Conference. Only Georgia and Kentucky penalize athletes after a first offense, and as of last year Georgia was one of four universities to suspend athletes for half the season after a second offense.
The university with the most lenient policy: Florida, McGarity’s former employer. The Gators are the only SEC school to give athletes five chances before dismissal, and suspend an athlete for half the season only after the fourth offense.
Courson said the NCAA does not provide any guidelines for institutional drug testing and suspensions, and the elimination of the phrase “controlled substance” stemmed from a desire to eliminate ambiguity in the policy.
“Controlled substance is such an ambiguous term. Any time you write a policy you want to eliminate ambiguity as much as you can,” Courson said. “But quite honestly, in the 18 years that I’ve been administering this policy, we’ve only had one issue ever with those substances ... from a pure interpretation standpoint, we don’t do anything [different] now than what we already have.”