UT drug policy way too lenient

A coach at the University of Tennessee called me to make sure I was aware of the athletic department's new drug policy adopted this summer.

``It's a joke,'' the coach said.

I can't argue.

Tennessee has adopted a policy that would allow a student-athlete to test positive for marijuana as many as five times before he or she is dismissed.

That is way too lenient.

A Kentucky coach told me a player is dismissed at UK after two positive marijuana tests.

I called Lady Vols coach Pat Summit to ask what she thought of UT's new drug policy.

"What do you think I think?'' she said.

She didn't give a director answer, but the answer was clear.

At Tennessee you could get five strikes – that's right, five strikes – for using marijuana before being dismissed. UT has what it calls a safe harbor program. If you declare before taking a test that you smoked pot, the ensuing positive drug test won't count against you. Then, you get three more positives before being suspended. Another positive results in dismissal.

UT's drug policy is more stringent for other drugs, such as cocaine, LSD and steroids, among others.

Mike Hamilton, UT athletic director, said the new drug policies were adopted for two reasons: To be more in line with peer institutions and to be more proactive in the educational process.

``Marijuana is illegal,'' Hamilton said. ``It's not a performance-enhancing drug. It's something we abhor and not something we want in our program. But at the same time, there are significant cultural issues with use of marijuana and if you don't think it's presently being used in society both in all demographics and all socioeconomic levels, then you've got your head buried in the sand.''

But the fact that it IS illegal makes a four- or five-strike policy before dismissal even more mind-boggling.

Ed Murphy, former men's basketball coach at Ole Miss, had his own policy: One and done. That is a deterrent.

At least four positive marijuana tests before you're gone is not.

Tennessee adopted a drug policy in 1986. Since then, at least 18 football players have been dismissed for substance abuse. Since 2000, at least three scholarship basketball players have been dismissed for positive drug tests.

Bruce Pearl, men's basketball coach, said he was trying to change a ``culture'' when he arrived two years ago.

The problem is not as significant on the women's side. The Lady Vols have never had an athlete dismissed for a positive drug test, according to women's AD Joan Cronan.

The men haven't been nearly so fortunate.

At UT, the majority of marijuana problems have been with the black athletes. The majority of alcohol problems have been with the white athletes.

A UT employee told me he knew of a case where a UT student-athlete smoked pot with his parents when he was five years old. It was engrained in his culture and the athlete saw nothing wrong with it.

In those cases, you're fighting uphill odds.

Hamilton said UT has embarked on an ``aggressive and proactive educational process" to curb the use of drugs.

The Safe Harbor Program can be used only once by a student-athlete who has never had a positive test.

Now, if a student-athlete has a positive test and is clean for a year, his record is wiped clean. Then, it would take four more positives to be dismissed. That policy has been in place for years, Hamilton said.

UT also had a policy whereby if you were already in the drug program and had another positive test, it didn't count against you.

Folks, that is absurd. There is no justification for allowing someone already in the drug program to continue to test positive without being dismissed.

Hamilton said UT studied drug policies in a variety of major conferences before adopting a new one this summer.

``We're not testing student-athletes to simply kick them to the curb,'' Hamilton said. ``We're testing to make sure they do the right things. We're working with them if they've got a problem.''

It's one thing to work with them.

It's another to give them too many strikes.

If you know you've got four or five chances to test positive before you're dismissed, aren't you more likely to push the envelop?

If you know you can cheat on tests four or five times before you're kicked out of school, aren't you more tempted to cheat?

Hamilton said he's proud of the fact UT men's athletics administered over 1,000 drug tests last year, while some peers tested 200 to 600 times for men and women combined.

``Our initiative has been, `Let's get proactive, let's educate, let's see if we can capture a problem early so maybe we can have a chance to change these kids,'' Hamilton said. ``That's what we're trying to accomplish, really.''

You can start by having a stricter drug policy.

I believe in second chances. When you give fourth and fifth chances, you're only inviting more problems – and less discipline.

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