Do the Gators have a drug problem? UF leaders say no
Published: Saturday, April 30, 2011 at 6:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 30, 2011 at 6:12 p.m.
At the conclusion of the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl in Tampa, Urban Meyer passed the Florida football program to Will Muschamp, who spent a significant portion of his childhood in Gainesville, grew up a Gator and knew exactly what he was inheriting.
Facts about the University of Florida's drug testing policy
- Over the last three years, the University Athletic Association has given nearly 4,200 drug tests to student-athletes, nearly 1,200 of those in the football program. Of those nearly 4,200 tests, 34 athletes tested positive.
- As soon as student-athletes step onto campus, they are drug-tested as part of their physical exam before they are permitted to participate and are introduced to the school's substance abuse education program during orientation.
- All scholarship freshmen student-athletes are required to take a two-credit Life Skills class and a unit that deals specifically with alcohol and substance abuse.
- All UF students are required to take an online Alcohol Educational Tutorial in their first year. The SEC has adopted the Branded a Leader program (which football, men's and women's basketball, baseball and men's track and field are required to take during the course of the academic year) and substance and alcohol abuse are discussed.
- Each UF student-athlete is tested a minimum of three times per year and is provided a clearly outlined set of consequences. Coaches can also impose additional penalties in their respective sports.
Muschamp was handed one of college football's elite programs, and a team with some impressive young talent that had questions at quarterback, depth issues in some critical areas and a kick-butt SEC schedule looming in 2011.
But did he also inherit something more ominous that he didn't know about?
Do the Gators have a drug problem? To be more specific, a marijuana problem?
It may, or may not, be a fair question, depending on your perspective. But it is being asked around the country in light of some recent events involving a handful of current and former players.
On Tuesday, Muschamp dismissed All-SEC cornerback Janoris Jenkins from the team following his second arrest in three months for possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana.
On the same day, Pro Football Weekly reported that former UF offensive lineman Maurice Hurt was the second Gator in three years to test positive for marijuana at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
All-America wide receiver Percy Harvin tested positive in 2009. Also, a third former UF player, star tight end Aaron Hernandez, revealed at last year's Combine that he'd failed a drug test during his Gator career.
Also earlier in the week, news came out that two other current Florida players — redshirt freshman linebacker Chris Martin and sophomore defensive end Kedric Johnson — had been arrested in January for possession of marijuana in separate incidents. Both received deferred prosecution in February and remain members of the team.
Does it add up to a drug problem?
No, says Muschamp — and the school's administration agrees with him.
Speaking to reporters before a Gator Gathering in South Florida earlier this week, Muschamp called the recent arrests "isolated situations." He said the Gators are making positive strides to eliminate those problems in the future.
"I told those guys that there is no option," he said. "If you want to be here and be part of what we're trying to do on our football team, fine. If you don't, there's the door.
"I do think things get blown out of proportion a little bit. I don't think things are nearly as bad as they seem to be from a perception standpoint. That's just my personal opinion."
Muschamp has implemented something he calls "The Florida Way." It is a code of conduct the players must abide by that is designed to make them stronger in the classroom and more accountable in the community.
He implemented the "Florida Way" when he booted Jenkins from the team Tuesday.
"Our guys need to act a certain way," Muschamp said. "That's what we expect. It's not a right to play at Florida, it's a privilege."
Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley and school President Bernie Machen expressed faith in UF's comprehensive substance abuse program when asked, via email, if they were concerned that there could be a drug problem on the football team.
"Certainly we're disappointed when young people make bad decisions," Foley responded via email. "We work extremely hard to educate all of our student-athletes on this issue and others and provide resources to assist them in any way we can.
"Drug testing is something we take extremely seriously, and we're committed to being as thorough as we possibly can in this area. … We have a strong program in place and continue to review our polices every single year."
Machen echoed Foley.
"UF and the Athletic Association are vigilant in our effort to educate students on the dangers of drugs and alcohol and provide them with the necessary resources to fight substance abuse," Machen said via email. "It's an ongoing effort and an important part of our role helping them grow into productive and mature adults."
UF's drug policy is overseen by a committee appointed by Machen and comprised of faculty members and includes education, counseling, extensive testing and sanctions for failed tests.
Because the results of testing are confidential, there is no way to gauge how many football players have tested positive for marijuana.
But failed drug tests do result in suspensions.
A second-time offender loses 10 percent (or one game) of his season. A third positive test results in a 20 percent loss of games and a fourth 50 percent (six games). A fifth strike, and the player is dismissed.
At the start of every season (and sometimes during the season) the Gators have had players suspended from games for "violating unspecified team rules." But the suspensions have usually been for only one game or two games and involved only a few players each season.
UF's drug policy is viewed as being a little more tolerant than most other schools in the SEC.
Drug policies vary at each conference institution. Among the 12 schools, UF's is the only policy that allows an athlete to remain on the team with four strikes.
Five schools — Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee — dismiss athletes after a third positive test. Three schools — Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State — dismiss after a fourth.
Meyer said earlier this week that marijuana use on the team was an issue when he became the head coach in 2005, although it is not necessarily reflected in the Gators' arrest record during Meyer's six-year tenure. Of the 30 arrests on Meyer's watch, only four were for possession of marijuana.
"It was a problem when we got here," Meyer said. "I thought we put a little bit of a dent in it. But it's still a problem.
"It's an issue at a lot of places. I've talked to a lot of other coaches who told me they were dealing with it as well. But at Gainesville, it's a national story.
"We sought counselors. We did a lot of things. There comes a point when you have to separate the player from the university, and I did that several times."
Meyer said he would not allow his players to go beyond a third strike.
If a player tested positive for a third time, he would cut him loose, he said. He did that with star defensive tackle Marcus Thomas during the 2006 championship season.
Educating the players is part of Muschamp's "Florida Way." Part of that process involves State Attorney Bill Cervone, who regularly speaks to football players on laws and what they can expect if they break them. Cervone said he's been invited to speak to the team under every coach from Steve Spurrier to Muschamp.
"There are a series of different messages," Cervone said. "I guess the common thread from year to year is that I am not going to give them any special consideration because they are athletes, nor am I going to have them taken advantage of because they are athletes.
"I tell them they would kick my butt on the football field, but they don't want to push their luck in my courtroom."
Drug laws are among the things Cervone covers and stresses.
Cervone said the rate of UF football players who get caught with marijuana is probably no greater than the general population within that age group. However, he added it is probably greater than the rate of UF students caught with pot.
"It's a pretty well-educated, affluent, not altogether typical group if you just look at the student body at UF," Cervone said. "I am 100 percent convinced that a lot of student-athletes are ill-equipped to deal with the social environment they are coming into through absolutely no fault of their own.
"Some of it is the socio-economic background from which they come. Some of it is a little more insidious in the constant stroking that ‘you're the best thing ever' that they have gotten since a young age."
Gainesville Police Officer Billy Long has worked as an undercover drug cop and is now on the weekend downtown beat.
He said police typically make at least one arrest for marijuana possession over the weekend, but that a lot more smoking is going on, judging from the often overpowering smell of it in the clubs.
He said the arrests usually come when officers spot users in their cars or in the bathroom at nightclubs — the way Jenkins, Martin and Johnson were all busted.
"Most of the football players we've dealt with, the last thing they want you to do is recognize who they are," Long said. "They think that will make it even worse. I guess in their mind maybe the coach or school won't find out."
Muschamp has found out each time it's happened on his watch. For those counting, that's four arrests for marijuana possession in four months.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 374-5022 or email@example.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.