Georgia Tech adjusts substance-abuse policy for athletes

Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury officially started his job this week and must try to unite the team’s fans and alumni behind the football coach Paul Johnson. (Rob Felt / Georgia Tech)

Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury officially started his job this week and must try to unite the team’s fans and alumni behind the football coach Paul Johnson. (Rob Felt / Georgia Tech)

With a bent toward using science and the input of experts in the field, Georgia Tech has amended its substance-abuse policy for its athletes, athletic director Todd Stansbury told the AJC. It has been adjusted in a way, Stansbury said, that is focused more on wellness and education than punishment.

The new program will now include a baseline test for freshmen for which a positive will not count against them. It also enables athletes who stay clean for nine months to have a “strike” removed from their record. Stansbury was particularly heartened by the addition of the baseline test.

“The penalty aspect of it is still pretty much relatively the same, but what has changed is really just the focus on getting the student-athletes earlier with education, as well as if we’ve got to do any kind of intervention,” he said. “Because what we’ve found is, just because of what kids may have been doing in high school, then they get here and the game’s totally changed, and so that’s been the focus of it.”

The previous policy, in place since the 2012-13 academic year, had a clear-cut three-strikes component. Athletes who tested positive a first time for illicit drugs, masking agents or steroids were required to meet with his or her head coach, undergo counseling and be subject to unannounced testing.

A second offense resulted in additional counseling and a suspension for 20 percent of the regular season. The consequence for a third positive was a permanent ban on competing for Tech in any sport.

Athletes can be tested on a random basis, before the start of their season, upon reasonable suspicion and before postseason competition. Those who fail drug tests are also subject to follow-up testing.

Stansbury instituted the changes after having been asked by school president G.P. “Bud” Peterson to review all of the athletic-department policies upon his hire in August 2016. Tech coaches Paul Johnson and Josh Pastner were among those supporting a change to the former policy.

“Times have changed,” Johnson said in September. “And, to me, there probably ought to be reason to test guys.”

Pastner was in favor of the incentive of removing a strike after staying clean for a certain amount of time, which came to pass. Stansbury said that rule was added after consulting experts, researching the policies of other schools and considering Tech’s own history.

“There’s been cases where somebody had a positive test, say, in their freshman year and then went years without a problem and, then, all of a sudden, they come back from spring break or something and their senior year they had a positive test and they’re penalized,” Stansbury said. “So this was a way, really, to give them also an incentive to basically get clean, stay clean.”

Pastner said Wednesday that he was “100 percent” behind whatever policy Stansbury deems best.

“I’m in the foxhole with Todd,” Pastner said.

Athletes can remove a strike only once in their career. It can be applied after either the first or second positive. Under the new policy, former Tech football star Dedrick Mills might have had his second strike removed by the time he failed his third drug test before the start of the 2017 season. The suspension for his second offense was announced Nov. 9, 2016. His dismissal was announced Aug. 18, 2017, a little more than nine months later.

Had that been the case, he would have been suspended for two games rather than be dismissed. A subsequent offense would have meant the end of Mills’ Tech career.

Tech joins a trend toward athletic department substance-abuse policies that have become more nuanced, as well as lenient. While some schools’ policies treat a positive for marijuana differently, Tech’s will not.

Stansbury said the percentage of athletes who test positive, even once, is “really low. … Fortunately, it’s not something that we’ve had to deal with a lot.”