Crime and punishment

KOLTON HOUSTON IS the face of zero tolerance, the victim of a world that long ago lost its appetite for gray. The University of Georgia offensive lineman -- a former high school All-American who grew up dreaming of wearing the same uniform his linebacker father, Shane, did -- has lost three seasons of his collegiate athletic career because of mistakes made when he was 17. By the letter of the law, Houston is guilty of sins that we have deemed seriously taboo, and he is being punished. In some ways, even in most ways, he is proof that the system works. His case is complicated only by his apparent innocence.

Shortly after his arrival in Athens in April 2010, Houston tested positive for an anabolic steroid called norandrolone. The NCAA considers a result greater than 2.5 nanograms per milliliter to be proof of use; Houston had 260 nanograms per milliliter. The math was simple, and he was suspended for a year. Violation, sentence, case closed. Ron Courson, Georgia's senior associate athletic director, gave Houston the news. "We were very surprised, very shocked," Courson recently told ESPN's Outside the Lines.

What wasn't surprising was Houston's response. He did what so many caught athletes do, blaming some mysterious tainted supplement, some shake or powder with too much boost. The difference was that Courson, the school's director of sports medicine since 1995, believed him. He began testing Houston, test after test -- "He's been tested probably more times than anybody in the history of college football," Georgia coach Mark Richt says -- and over time Houston carried less norandrolone but still too much. His body wasn't a destination for the drug; it was somehow a source.

Courson, baffled, searched for answers. He found them in an MRI. In high school, Houston had undergone shoulder surgery, after which a physician had given him a series of injections. Houston says he had no idea those shots contained a banned substance. Even worse, the physician's needle had missed its mark. According to Courson, norandrolone should be injected into the muscle, where it does its construction work and then disappears. Houston's doses had been injected into fat, and there the norandrolone had been lost and now found, five telltale masses gleaming like ghosts, a literal, physical haunting by a mistake.

The NCAA tested Houston again in April 2011. Again he tested positive: 16 nanograms per milliliter. The NCAA banned Houston for life, because that's what happens to repeat offenders. Our latest example of cut-and-dried sat in Courson's office and burst into tears. Fortunately, because Courson had been conducting his own tests, he was able to appeal the ban by proving that Houston hadn't reused. The NCAA relented, but Houston, who would ordinarily be Georgia's starting right tackle, would remain ineligible until his levels met the association's high standards for clean.

Despite sauna treatments, an experimental antibiotic and the surgical removal of those five deposits, Houston is still testing positive. His norandrolone level is now around 4. He has two years of eligibility left. Were he somehow able to fall below the threshold, the NCAA could grant him a third. (Though given permission by Houston's family to discuss the case publicly, the NCAA has declined to comment.) It's just as possible that Houston will never play a down of college football; he has stopped practicing with the team because it's too painful. "Every single day I pass [the stadium] and think, I just want to play there," he says.

Courson, who once sat on the NCAA's Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports committee, continues to fight. "I agree that we must have rules, but we must also be judicious in our application," he says. These are not easy times to seek leniency. We have become expert at assigning guilt because we needed to. We have learned never again to confuse impossibilities for miracles, excuses for explanations. We have found a new safety in black-and-white, just as we have learned too well the risk in making exceptions, the shame in seeing innocence where it is not.

But if Kolton Houston could somehow be considered a sinner, then surely he has suffered enough for his sins. Has true justice ever existed in a place where forgiveness cannot? Or, given a choice between breaking a kid and breaking a rule, would we really rather save the rule?

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