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Drug testing in SEC hot topic

DESTIN, Fla. -- The presidents, athletic directors and coaches of Southeastern Conference schools have discussed the possibility of the conference implementing a conference-wide substance-abuse policy, Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said Wednesday.

If the presidents bring it to a vote and pass it on Friday, the SEC would become the nation's first conference with a conference-mandated substance-abuse policy for its athletes.

The penalties for a first, second or third positive test would be the same for each conference school and not determined by the individual schools.

It is not definite that the presidents will have enough support to bring it to a vote, but the fact that it's even being discussed at the president level is significant, McGarity said.

"I don't think it's necessary to get down into the weeds as far as how many times you test, what are the measurements, what are the minimum [levels for a positive test]," McGarity said, "but we believe there should be some type of consistent penalty [for each positive test]."

Based on the substance-abuse policies obtained by ESPN from the schools' official websites or through public records requests, a student-athlete at Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and LSU is dismissed after a fourth positive test, while the remaining 10 SEC schools dismiss a student-athlete after only a third positive test.

The school's substance-abuse policies are for recreational drugs, such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy. Each university determines the punishment for each positive test.

The NCAA also conducts tests for performance-enhancing drugs, such as steroids, and those penalties are the same for each NCAA member institution: a first positive test for steroids is a one-year suspension; a second positive test ends a student-athlete's NCAA eligibility for the remainder of his career.

Getting the 14 SEC presidents to agree on what the punishment should be for each positive test could be simple compared to the other details involved in each institution's substance-abuse policy. How frequent are the tests? What exactly constitutes a positive test? Would the SEC hire an outside company to conduct the tests or leave it up to the individual schools? Would all the testing methods be identical or just the penalties?

While McGarity and Georgia president Michael Adams are huge proponents to having the same substance-abuse penalties for each SEC school, Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin favors letting the individual institutions continue to determine their policies.

"Even if nobody else does it [testing], we're going to do what we think is the right thing to do," Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman said. "If another school wants to do it a certain way and regulate it a certain way, that's their prerogative. What are we trying to do anyway? We're trying to help young people. I don't want another school to tell me how to do it."

Some SEC athletic directors and coaches, who didn't want to be quoted, think that certain schools have "competitive advantages" based on how frequently -- or infrequently -- they test or how many games student-athletes miss for positive tests.

For example, Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi State require student-athletes to miss 10 percent of their regular-season contests after a first positive test, while the remaining 11 SEC schools don't suspend a student-athlete for a first offense.

Punishment for a second positive test also varies greatly among league members. At Missouri, a second positive test results in only a seven-day suspension, compared to Auburn and Kentucky (suspended for 50 percent of the season) or Vanderbilt (a one-year suspension).

Who's to say if Missouri's penalty is too lenient or Vanderbilt's is too strict?

"Integrity just comes from within," Hyman said. "You can't regulate integrity. I feel comfortable what [our testing policy is] at Texas A&M. I'm not in it for the advantage. I'm in it for what's the right thing to do for your student-athletes."

Alabama athletic director Bill Battle also favors individual institutions determining their substance-abuse policies.

"There are a lot of things we don't do the same as other schools," Battle said. "The policy for a lot of schools has been undertesting and overpunishing."

This marks the second consecutive year at the SEC spring meetings the presidents have discussed a conference-wide substance-abuse policy. A number of athletic directors and coaches said that educating offenders and counseling also is an important part of their schools' substance-abuse programs.

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said he's most concerned that "we want to do what is the right thing for these kids."

But what is the right thing? Should the schools determine their own unique policies, the same way they determine entrance requirements? Or should the schools all have the same penalties, the same way they must all have the same scholarship limitations?

"It would make sense to make them all the same," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "We're pretty similar, although you read stories that other people are not similar."