Georgia’s drug policy tries prevention too

semerson@macon.comSeptember 13, 2012 

ATHENS -- In November, ESPN aired a documentary on Chris Herren, chronicling the basketball player’s long and difficult battle with drug abuse. The show, part of ESPN’s “30 for 30’ series, received rave reviews and was called provocative.

In Athens, coaches and administrators at the football program were watching.

This was right after three Georgia tailbacks had been suspended a game for a violation of the Georgia drug policy. It was months before another round of drug tests that led to suspensions of two key defensive players.

Many know about Georgia’s discipline policy on drug tests, thanks to the attention given to the suspensions. But there is also a preventive aspect to the drug program, and as part of it, the school invites a speaker once a semester to address its athletes.

On Sunday, it was Herren.

“It was exactly like his ‘30 for 30’ show,” Georgia sophomore receiver Michael Bennett said. “It’s just basically his story of how he went through all that drug and alcohol stuff. It’s crazy. It’s just basically to tell us, ‘If you drink, drink responsibility. Just stay out of drugs and all that.’ It’s just common sense for athletes to do, but it was good to hear that. Hopefully a lot of guys got something out of it.”

The idea to invite Herren was first broached by Dave Van Halanger, the director of character development for the football program. A cynic might connect the invitation with the bad publicity of the past year for the football team and say it was all a reaction to the positive tests. For the record, Georgia never has confirmed any of the suspensions are related to drugs, but multiple reports and sources have.

But Ron Courson, the head athletic trainer for the football program, said that while the punishment aspect of the policy gets the most attention, it’s only a part of it.

“When you look at drug education, substance abuse policies, it’s gotta be comprehensive,” Courson said. “Testing is an important portion of it. But the central component is education counseling. And it goes back to prevention.”

Courson said one of the most powerful speakers Georgia had recently was Tim Worley, the former Georgia tailback who saw time in the NFL, then struggled with substance abuse. Worley has been sober for several years now.

Herren has no connection to Georgia, but the fact his story made its way to ESPN added some credibility with athletes.

Herren, now 36, grew up in Fall River, Mass., and had a promising career. He played for Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State from 1999-2002, then was a second-round pick of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. He actually started his college career at Boston College but was kicked out of that school because of drugs.

“That first line of cocaine I took at BC, it took me almost 18 years to stop that run,” Herren said in the documentary.

Herren’s pro career was derailed by drugs, and he last played professionally in 2006 in Europe. He was arrested multiple times. He recounted drinking and using drugs just six hours after the birth of his third child.

But Herren has been sober since 2008 and has used his past to develop a career as a motivational speaker.

“He was a very compelling speaker because he was so real about the situation and the topic,” Georgia sophomore receiver Chris Conley said. “He was so real. And it stopped a lot of people in their tracks, and everyone just focused and listened. The ability to convey how it had a grip on his life, it was an eye-opener to a lot of people.”

Herren spoke to the athletes for about an hour, including a question-and-answer period.

He mentioned having sat in their position, going through the same kind of seminar -- and it obviously still leading to a long string of bad choices.

“I think he did a great job of personalizing substance abuse,” Courson said. “He started out just telling them he could identify with them. … He remembered going to the exact same lecture his freshman year just like everyone else and thinking, ‘It’ll never happen to me,’ and then see what happened after that. He told his story in a very open and up-front way, and people identified with him.”

Courson is on a substance abuse committee, which includes some physicians, athletic trainers, administrators and drug and alcohol counselors. That has helped form the policy, which he said has three components, in order: education, testing and then counseling.

Of course, testing leads to more than just counseling, it also leads to discipline. The suspension is 10 percent of a season (one football game) for a first violation. And then 30 percent of a season (four games) for a second violation. The policy is considered more stringent than many of the SEC programs Georgia is competing with, drawing criticism that Georgia is putting itself as a disadvantage.

But Courson said the policy is important.

“If the only thing that we do at Georgia is develop good athletes, then we’re doing our student-athletes a disservice,” Courson said. “We want them to be complete people. You know, we want them to be outstanding students. We want them to be outstanding athletes, obviously. We want them to be outstanding people. And with that you want to have guidelines in place to help them.”

But inviting speakers like Worley and Herren is also part of the strategy.

“I feel like everyone needs to be educated,” Conley said. “College has a lot of people from diverse backgrounds. So some people don’t ever hear that story. Some people hear it acted out. Some people don’t understand the gravity of the situation. So I feel like it’s necessary even if it’s not punishment. It’s something good for everyone to hear and you can never hear it too much.”

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