Friday, February 17, 2012

What Do You Do WIth Drug Tests?

The ongoing saga at TCU presents a true PR crisis test: Do you violate FERPA to correct a dangerous rumor?

Lawyers say no. We say yes.

Let's put the film on the projector and break it down for the new or the public.

Two arrested players "brag" about how widespread the drug problem is within the TCU team. Why? To look cool to the undercover cop they are selling to and then to not look like the outsiders. One player's comment was 60 players were "screwed" on the surprise test; the other claimed "what can they do, 82 people failed it" implying the whole team.

So what to do? The public will think your football team sits around licking the mascot trying to get a hallucinogenic high.

But to release the tests falls right in the FERPA and HIPPA wheelhouse?

Not necessarily. No school wants to give up that type of info as if it were FOIA, and almost every university uses FERPA as broad cloak (see the Columbus Dispatch investigative series on this nationwide). Almost all get waiver from student-athletes that would legally cover them if they wanted to, but lawyers will caution against precedent.

TCU's chancellor, Victor Boschini, did what you expect: refused to release the drug test results, falls back on kids will be kids in his statement.

Enter the unnamed source.

Sure, the lawyers have their liability points, but this is the court of public opinion and you cannot let the brash statements of arrested drug users and dealers stand unchallenged.

From the Dallas Morning News, "But a source told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that only five players failed the test." Other "leaks" revealed another 11 had trace amounts within the margin of error.

Five fails on a cohort of 80-90 students at any university -- that's a whole lot different from 60 to 100 percent of the group as implied by the accused.

Who was the unnamed source? Whoever the athletic director and the university's crisis management team determined would tell the media on deep background the truth. Might have been the football SID. Could have been the university PR director. Maybe an athletic trainer. Don't be naive -- it was calculated.

The truth must out in circumstances like these. When it is held back, it only causes double the amount of trouble.

Yes, in this case, the truth benefited the institution. Keep in mind that TCU's administrators didn't know it would when this started -- when they brought in the Fort Worth PD, when Patterson made the team-wide drug test.

What they discovered was a difficult reality, but not the horror it could be turned into. They have students and student-athletes who need assistance in cleaning up, or discipline and removal from the institution that doesn't support their behavior.

To pick up on Boschini's statement:

"The is no doubt that students fall short form time to time, but we also know that they, as we, are committed to getting back up and moving forward."

The case is developing, but already it is not reaching the levels of even regional knowledge -- much less national. I'm surprised how many colleagues in my circles -- pretty close to Fort Worth in geography and interests -- even knew the event happened.

To control a fire, sometimes you have to set one -- a controlled burn for prevention or a backburn to take away a wild fire's fuel.

So far, TCU hasn't made the mistakes that turn bad news into national crisis.

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