UIL overturns DEC suspension of 6 Gatesville football players

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By KEITH SPARKS

The Gatesville Hornet football program has been surrounded by controversy this season, based on allegations that six varsity players used performance-enhancing drugs over the summer.

On Oct. 27, District 13-4A’s District Executive Committee (DEC) voted to suspend those players for 30 days, to the dismay of Liberty Hill ISD Superintendent and DEC Chair Dr. Rob Hart. That same afternoon, the University Interscholastic League’s (UIL) State Executive Committee (SEC), sharing Hart’s view, overturned the suspension. On Friday, those six Hornets will be on the field against Liberty Hill in their final district game.

According to Hart, Gatesville Junior High assistant football coach Aaron Mueller, who has a younger brother on the varsity team, convinced his brother and five of his Gatesville varsity teammates to let a nurse inject them with a substance that they believed to be a testosterone booster over the summer. The injections, which Hart said took place “two or three times,” were administered at Mueller’s apartment, without consent from any of the students’ parents, from vials that Mueller ordered by mail from Houston.

Shortly after Gatesville ISD’s Superintendent, Eric Penrod, and Hornets’ Head Football Coach and Athletic Director, Kyle Cooper, learned what had taken place, Mueller resigned.

The six Gatesville football players were ultimately suspended from extracurricular activities for 28 days over the summer, missing only some seven-on-seven competition, a few weeks of practice, and two scrimmages.

According to Hart, Penrod and Cooper forwarded the information to the police, and the six student-athletes that had been injected in Mueller’s apartment were drug tested by Gatesville ISD. Each of their results came back clean.

“They blood tested each student, and their testosterone levels were the same as an 18-year-old male,” Hart said. “They were not elevated in any shape, form, or fashion, nor was there any kind of positive test for anything, any type of steroid, any type of performance-enhancing drug.”

Not only were the athletes found clean of any performance-enhancers, but Hart said the so-called performance-enhancing testosterone vials were tested as well, and the results were unclear.

“They had a vial of the things they were injecting them with, and they gave it to the police department, who turned it over to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), and they can’t figure out what’s in the vial,” Hart said.

Referencing the DEA’s inconclusive test of the substance in question, Hart explained, “It could have been saline or sugar water, for all we know.”

In Hart’s opinion, the disciplinary actions taken by Gatesville ISD that followed were appropriately enforced — considering the lack of positive drug tests — and no further action was necessary.

Liberty Hill’s own Head Football Coach and Athletic Director Jeff Walker, on the other hand, doesn’t believe the punishment fits the crime. He admitted that his knowledge of the situation is limited, but believes that further punishment should take place, based simply on Mueller’s admission of guilt. Walker said he “wants what’s best for the kids,” but believes the lack of an in-season suspension sends the wrong message to student-athletes and coaches across the state.

“I tried to stay out of it,” Walker said. “I got a little word here and there from Dr. Hart, but I never even called him about it or anything like that. It’s not my business. It’s way over my pay grade, but from what I know about it, you would think something else has to happen. UIL’s telling everybody, ‘Hey, shoot up steroids in the summer. It doesn’t matter. Even if you admit to it, if you’re clean by football season, you’re good.’ I don’t think that’s the right message to send out, but I don’t know all the details. I don’t know the facts, so I’m just staying out of it and whatever happens, happens.”

Although the UIL and SEC hold ultimate power over such issues in the state of Texas, they typically prefer to leave them up to the governing DEC, instead, following the Texas Senate’s 2014 decision to cease statewide drug testing. Each district’s DEC is comprised of the participating school districts’ Superintendents.

In this case, the governing DEC was that of District 13-4A, which includes Gatesville, Liberty Hill, Burnet, China Spring, Lampasas, and Waco La Vega. Once the story hit news outlets, Hart said that Burnet Consolidated ISD Superintendent Keith McBurnett felt the DEC should take further action.

According to Hart, McBurnett requested that the DEC hold a meeting to decide whether or not the six Gatesville football players broke a state law pertaining to extracurricular activities, which would, in turn, mean they violated a Category A UIL regulation.

“My response is, ‘What state law?’” Hart said. “Tell me the law they violated.”

On Oct. 11, per McBurnett’s request, District 13-4A’s DEC held what Hart called an “information gathering meeting.” Every 13-4A Superintendent was in attendance to give Penrod from Gatesville an opportunity to present the facts. Following Penrod’s explanation, the DEC held a vote on whether or not they believed the six student-athletes violated the aforementioned Category A UIL violation, and the committee decided they did.

“Then they decided that they were going to vote to suspend kids, and I stopped that and said, ‘This is not a hearing, guys. This is a meeting. You can’t suspend six players without giving them due process,’” Hart said, “‘so they need to stand up in front of us and tell their side of the story.’”

The DEC agreed to hold a hearing on Oct. 27, during which the six Gatesville student-athletes were given an opportunity to plead their case. The meeting lasted more than two hours, Hart said, and the committee ultimately agreed to suspend the six players for 30 school days on the grounds of a Category A UIL violation.

Hart voted against the suspension and was in the minority.

“I don’t generally vote, because I’m Chair,” Hart said, “but I voted no, because all of the protocol and all the UIL testing, when they do testing, is based on positive results. We have none. We don’t have positive results. Here’s a big key. When the UIL did do the random steroid testing, before anybody could be suspended it took two positive tests. We didn’t have one for anything. That’s why I voted no, also knowing that the State Executive Committee was going to overturn it that afternoon, because I had spent a lot of time with the UIL on this.”

Following the DEC’s decision, the UIL called an emergency meeting of the SEC, which trumps all DECs. Just one hour after the DEC hearing, the SEC gathered in Georgetown to hear testimony from Hart and representatives from both Gatesville ISD and Burnet CISD. The hearing officer, who was allowed to oversee the hearing alone due to the fact that it was considered an emergency, ruled in favor of the students and overturned the DEC’s proposed 30-day suspension. The SEC ruled that the Gatesville football players did not break a state law by taking an injection of a substance that they did not personally obtain.

While others within District 13-4A may not agree with the SEC’s decision, Hart firmly believes that Gatesville ISD took all of the necessary measures following their investigation, supporting the SEC and their decision to overturn the suspension.

“They turned everything over to the UIL after they finished their investigation. They turned it over to the TEA (Texas Education Agency) and the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC),” Hart said. “They terminated the employment of the coach and submitted those findings over to SBEC, who will eventually flag his certificate. They turned it over to the police, who I believe are going to arrest the nurse. The students did their punishment.”

While many would hope that the DEC’s investigation and resulting decision had more to do with the safety of students and integrity of the game, Hart is under the impression that their interest in the case had more to do with gaining a competitive advantage.

“Personally, I believe they thought they were going to have to forfeit all the wins, and that’s not the case,” Hart said. “You don’t forfeit on individual students. You forfeit for team violations. I explained to them that if they voted to suspend these kids, that suspension takes place immediately after the vote is cast. Anything that happened up to that point, they were perfectly legal to play. Therefore, no one forfeits a game. The look on their faces was kind of like, ‘What do you mean?’ My opinion is that they were expecting them to have to forfeit games.”

In fact, Hart explained that Penrod said another superintendent from District 13-4A told him personally, “If you were 0-5, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Hart, who has been a Superintendent for 18 years, said he has never seen anything that comes close to what has taken place with Gatesville and District 13-4A’s DEC.

“Out of the 18 years I’ve been Superintendent, 14 years I’ve been the Chair of different districts, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hart said. “I was appalled. I really was.”

While he may disagree with their views on what took place in Gatesville, Hart understands as well as anybody that outside noise from players’ parents and other influential members of their respective communities likely had a lot to do with his fellow superintendents’ involvement in the investigation.

“I think other people were pushing the superintendents to say, ‘Hey, that’s illegal. You don’t want your kids playing against those kids when they’ve been taking all these drugs,’” Hart said, “but they didn’t.”

Hart reiterated that there is zero concrete proof that any of the six Gatesville student-athletes took illegal drugs. Even so, he said, some media members have taken those rumors and spun them into full-fledged lies.

“Even on, what is that Friday High School Scoreboard that Craig Way and them do? That night, Craig Way said, and I couldn’t believe it, that, ‘You can’t ignore what’s going on in 13-4A, where six Gatesville students tested positive for steroids,’” Hart said. “There is no truth to that. That’s false. That’s downright false. They didn’t test positive for anything. I’ve got the test results.”

For the time being, the Gatesville football program and the six student-athletes involved are good to go. They’ve all but locked in a playoff spot, and forfeits of their previous victories are out of the question.

On Friday at Gatesville High School at 7:30 p.m., the controversy will take a back seat, and the Panthers will look to lock up second place in the district with a win over the Hornets.

Sports@LHIndependent.com

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