ATHENS ― Earlier this year, with no fanfare, UGA quietly tweaked its much-debated drug and alcohol policy for student-athletes. In a nutshell: The penalty structure, the most stringent in the SEC, didn’t change, but deciding what draws a penalty did change. More leeway was given to the school and athletic department as part of what Ron Courson, the school’s director of sports medicine, called an “individualistic” approach.
The changes went into effect Sept. 1.
Courson spoke with media members on Monday night to answer questions about the new policies, their origin and intended impact.
Q: How much did Kirby Smart have influence with this?
Q: Without being able to do a line-by-line review of what’s different, what do you think are the highlights ― the short version, obviously ― of what’s different in this policy?
Courson: There’s really not any significant changes. The biggest thing is we try to, number one, make it consistent with pre-existing policy with the university to mesh with the amnesty and good Samaritan [policies] that the university has. To mesh with the current university drug and alcohol policy on level one and level two violations. Then we tried to make it more individualized. One of the things we also did was we outsourced our substance abuse treatment education. We want to put it in the hands of professionals.
Q: Ron or Greg (McGarity, the athletic director, also on the call), how is it more individualized?
Courson: What we tried to do, and really what we try to do with any medical condition, whether we’re dealing with an orthopedic issue or a medical issue or a substance-abuse issue, is we try to look at the individual aspect of every case. Substance abuse is different; it’s multi-factorial. There may be many medical issues involved, there may be genetics involved. We want to look at each individual case based upon the aspects there and apply the best practices we can for treatment. Our goal is to provide the best environment for our student-athletes. We feel it needs to be individualized.
Q: Is there more leeway now? Basically, if somebody has incurred a violation to have that waived, for a lack of a better term, if there are extenuating circumstances?
Courson: No, it was not set up for that at all. It was set up to try to individualize based on circumstances.
Q: But is there more leeway now?
Courson: Based on [what] the purpose of our policy is, it’s to identify anyone who may have a potential issue. And they may enter into it from the amnesty program or they may self report. They may enter in through a test. They may enter in through an interaction with law enforcement. Once we identify them, we want to try to find, based on the circumstances and their individual case, the best way to treat that. We care about our athletes and want them to have a healthy, safe lifestyle.
Q: Ron, I understand the need to get rid of the catch-all that was there at one point. I understand that. But what I don’t understand is when you start talking about a medical issue and individualization, where does the change in what counts as an offense and what doesn’t come in? It seems like whether you guys are counting a citation as an offense, it’s hard for me to draw the line connecting individualization and what a situation is, with run-ins with law enforcement and things like that.
Courson: Basically what we’re trying to do is if anyone has an issue, they are evaluated. They are seen by a drug addiction specialist. They do a very detailed evaluation and look into different things from genetics to if they have any behavioral or medical issues. They may be dealing with depression as well or some other health issues. So we try to help to find all the problems involved and then try to address those individually based upon that. That’s why the care and treatment is set up from that standpoint. Just like if I had a knee [injury] – I could have 10 ACLs and every one of them could be different. Different athletes, different sports, different types of injuries. One may have a meniscus repair, one may not. Substance abuse is very similar. Rather than have a one-size-fits-all protocol like a cookbook or a recipe, what you want to do is try to individualize.
Q: I’m wondering, when you do try to go that route, how difficult is it to tell when somebody is just making a mistake and not dealing with a problem, than someone who is dealing with a substance-abuse problem? How tough is it to differentiate those two from previous experiences and use that in the confines of this revised policy?
Courson: That’s a great question. I think sometimes when you have a situation, everybody looks at that. But there’s a saying: You don’t want to go with the worst, you want to look at the first. One of the things we want to identify is whenever we have anybody has a problem, it’s, ‘Where did it start? What started it? Why are they doing that?’ And again, it could be a wide variety of reasons. That may involve a number of people from drug counselors to psychologists to behavioral medicine experts. We try to get as many people as we can involved that we need to help identify the problem as best we can. It’s no different than rehab. They have to be compliant and work along with the sports medicine team. They have to work together with the behavioral medicine and substance abuse team.
Q: Since the student-athlete handbook is updated annually, why was this policy put into effect Sept. 1 as opposed to July 1?
Courson: That was the timing of when it passed. This was a process that we’ve been working on for quite a while and we went through a number of revisions. Like anything, we didn’t want to bring it out until we were very happy with it and felt like we had a solid policy, and that happened at that point. The handbook had already been published at that point but we implemented a new policy. We sat down individually with every student-athlete in every sport as well as every coach as well.
Georgia ADGreg McGarity: Ron basically made that effort to meet with all coaches and student-athletes. It was dealt with immediately after that. It started in 2015 [the process to come up with a new policy], if you read the [executive] summary there. It states about the timing of it from inception to implementation.
Q: Why wasn’t this change publicized, given that it went into effect Sept. 1?
McGarity: There was no reason to. We made our student-athletes aware of it and basically handled it internally in that way. When there was a [open records] request for it, we obviously provided it. Nothing to hide here; just no requests were made. We updated everybody that needed to be informed of it internally.
Q: With the new policy going forward with your experience dealing with student-athletes in the last five or 10 years, would the number of athletes that might be subject to penalties change? Would we see 30 percent less, 15 percent less? How would that play out?
Courson: I don’t think you necessarily would see a change in the number. What we want to see a change in is their outcome. We want to have the very best outcome that we can with every student-athlete. That’s why it’s important. Athletics are important, and I understand. Substance abuse can affect your life in a very negative way. We take our commitment to our student-athletes very seriously. I’m a parent. I have four kids. My goal is to treat every one of my student-athletes the same way I would my children. I think we have a responsibility to do that. We wanted to try to have the best possible protocol we can … use the best medical professionals we can so we identify if somebody has a problem. Having a holistic approach, we can individualize it and have the best program from that.