Last week I decided to sit and write a new blog on athletes and alcohol. Recently I have taken a position with the Birmingham-Bloomfield Community Coalition as the PS4A Project Coordinator. My primary focus is on preventing student athlete alcohol abuse.
After getting some great ideas, researching tons of journals and contacting people who would help me write this blog, writers block took place and all I was able to do on last Saturday was sit and watch football (not always a tough thing as my primary job keeps me pretty busy.). As I gave in to the block, news broke on the tragic incident in Kansas City with Jovan Belcher and the murder-suicide. The athletic trainer in me, my first thought was; “Was this concussion related?” then, as the story progressed and more information came out, it was evident that alcohol played a very large part in this story.
Of course there is plenty more of the story that will come out but with my new duties with the Coalition it reminds me of the stark fact that alcohol and its damaging effects are very apparent and the stress of athletics is always there, even though many of us may wish to turn a blind eye to it. Do high school athletes suffer from similar stress and how can alcohol attribute to the stress and outcome of their lives?
Over the past month there have been at least two very large stories on football players and alcohol. The reason I started this blog was to address athletics and the prevalence of alcohol in sport, but also to talk about the case of Javon Belcher. While doing research on the topic and Javons case, tragedy struck in Dallas with the drinking and driving death of Jerry Brown. Undoubtedly alcohol played a role in both of these tragedies but the question becomes, can this happen to our student athlete, even at the high school level?
In the case of Jovan Belcher, we find that there are plenty of factors that took place in that early December murder-suicide. Javon was not only dealing with financial and relationship problems but also neurological problems that most likely stem from potential multiple concussions but also what seems to be a true addiction problem in which the Kansas City Chiefs where trying to provide help for. Over my past 15+ years in athletics ranging from being an athlete in high school and college to working in D3, D1, professional and at the high school level, athletes at all ages and stages deal with similar pressures. Now, of course I am not excusing the murder of Kasandra Perkins but we must be aware of the warning signs athletes may exhibit to help curb destructive behaviors such as alcohol abuse or addiction.
On December 8th, 2012 Josh Brent of the Dallas Cowboys was charged with intoxication manslaughter of teammate Jerry Brown in Irving Texas. At the time of the incident Josh Brent’s preliminary breath test was at .18, more than twice the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle here in Michigan. Because Josh Brent chose to drive after a night out with fellow teammates he caused the death of his best friend, Jerry Brown.
In November I accepted the position of Project Coordinator with the Birmingham-Bloomfield Community Coalition. Our goal with the new project is Preventing Student Alcohol Abuse among Athletes (PS4A). I took this position not to “rat” anyone out or to scare my athletes about the risk of alcohol but to be an advocate for our student athletes. As a “retired” athlete I have seen the ups and downs of competition, the stress of a season, the stress of an off-season, the joy of the win and the despair of defeat and the role that drugs and alcohol can play.
Our goal with the new program is to increase the awareness of the risk of alcohol and the risk of abuse, especially with student athletes. In the future we will increase awareness of our schools codes of conduct, increase resiliency among student athletes and inform on the harms of underage drinking and the effects it will have on athletics and your performance through real life examples and providing support for those who may have abuse problems.
When it comes to social norms overall and social norms with athletes and athletics it seem that there tends to be an ‘ok’ with the overall topic. Over time we as a society have steered away from the casual drink at work and have seen a decrease in alcohol related offenses and deaths but when it comes to alcohol and athletics we have found that there has been a steady increase, especially with athletes themselves. We can always suggest that, because our idols sponsor certain brands or that we try to mirror their behavior, whether it is good or bad adolescent athletes are more apt to pick up a drink as a “safe alternative” to drugs and a way to de-stress.
Athletes and Perception
One social question we may have is; do athletes use and abuse alcohol more than the general population and why? Although there may be many more questions and many ambiguous answers I believe we are starting to see a greater understanding of the “why.”
As we begin to learn more through the field of sports psychology we are beginning to learn that there may be a potential cognitive mechanism in athletes that would suggest why athletes tend to drink more. Athletes tend to report a higher use of alcohol with a lowered perception of risk associated with the behavior. With a decreased perception of risk there is an increase of unsafe behaviors.
Stress and Athletics
Do athletes stress more? One of the arguments to alcohol abuse among athletes is that there is a greater rate of stress they must deal with. Let’s think about the typical high school athlete. With an already full day of school tack on 2-3 hours of practice, 2+ hours of homework, college applications, considerations, thoughts of both academic and athletic scholarships and social pressure you can see that the amount of stress a typical high school athlete must deal with on a daily basis can be pretty tough.
On top of already daily stresses, athletes typically get one “day off” a week which can lead to them trying to let off as much “steam” as possible is such a short amount of time. Finding a much more productive and suitable way to de-stress must become a priority for our student athletes before then begin to use and abuse alcohol.
Understanding the psychology of student athletes and stress will become an ongoing mission for me and PS4A.
Physical effects during activity
So what are the physical effects of alcohol on the body, and why are some people able to have an occasional drink while one drink will ruin a person both mentally and physically.
There have been many academic journal articles that have tackled the issue regarding both the negative and positive effects of alcohol on the body as well as the effects on physically active. Of course the articles that address the positives have been few and far between and typically only address the occasional pint of beer or glass of wine after casual exercise.
In reality alcohol can have a much greater side effect than gain when consumed after or even during activity or athletics. Consumption of alcohol can have negative effects ranging between 15-48 hours. Negative effects can include, sleep disturbances or loss, impaired motor skills like balance, reaction and coordination, decreased energy from dehydration, increased blood pressure and decreased cellular repair. Now think about how you may feel generally after a hard fought game or practice and then add all of the negative side effects that alcohol may have. Now think about those weekend tournaments or post season play where games are played back to back or with as little as a day in between.
When the turnaround for each game or practice is so short your body must be as efficient as possible to repair any damage it may have incurred so that you are able to participate at 100% of your ability.
Abuse vs. Addiction
It is very important to address the physiology of addiction or abuse while talking about alcohol. While the very real threat of addiction is around us and more and more people realize that addiction to alcohol is very easy it is important to understand that abuse of alcohol is much more prevalent than true addiction.
While addiction is a true disease with real physiological changes to the brain and body, abuse tends to be more of a behavioral trait. I’m not saying that either one is better than the other because both carry very serious consequences it is important to understand what may happen in the body during both addiction and abuse.
As stated before alcohol addiction is a disease and there are real changes that happen in the body. When someone is addicted to alcohol they deal with what is called “Reward Deficiency Syndrome.” Reward Deficiency Syndrome is a lowered level of dopamine that is released in the brain during use. It is unclear if people are addicted because they have low dopamine levels or if dopamine levels become low because they are addicted. It’s kind of the “chicken or the egg” argument. Addicts tend to become unpleasant and use to gain the response or reward from the consumption of drugs or alcohol that raises the level of dopamine for a short time.
Abuse is more common that addictions to alcohol due to the amount of people who have true RDS and is typically a behavioral trait. Abuse happens when there is a failure to fulfill work, social or school obligations and there is a continued use despite social problems such as recurrent legal problem. Typically alcohol abuse happens as a response to dramatic changes in emotional states such as extreme sadness or elation. A majority of alcohol abusers can stop on their own once they realize and associate the cognitive triggers they may have that causes them to abuse alcohol.
Both addiction and abuse can carry severe health problems that may become chronic disorders. Common ailments can include hypertension, an increase heart rate, and increase in Low Density Lipoproteins (the bad cholesterol). More serious aliments can include diabetes, fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver and even asterixis, a motor disorder that is characterized by jerky motions of the hand and wrist.
I think when it comes to drugs and alcohol everyone worries about the legal ramifications. Traditionally the students are always worried about the “M.I.P.” or Minor in Possession. The Michigan Minor in Possession law prohibits persons less than 21 years of age from purchasing, attempting to purchase, consuming, attempting to consume, possessing or attempting to possess an alcoholic beverage. It also prohibits a minor from having any bodily alcohol content. Basically, there is a ZERO Tolerance rule with alcohol and minors.
A first Minor in Possession charge is a misdemeanor offense and does not carry any jail time but offenders are closely monitored through probation. Probation can typically be for about a year for first time offenders but there are many requirements probationers must complete in order to successfully complete probation. Requirements can include daily, weekly or monthly urine screens or PBT’s as well as completion of different programs such as MADD’s Victims Impact Panel where those who are adversely affected by alcohol give real life examples to those in the audience.
Upon full completion of all requirements in probation, State law now allows first time offenders a program that will expunge the offense from their record so that minors are able to learn from their mistake and move on with their life with college and their career.
For second time offenders the offense is not allowed to be expunged from their record and consequences become much more severe. Probation may be as up to, or longer than 2 years as well as potential jail time. Requirements in probation such as urine screens become much more frequent and courts typically require multiple offenders to attend NA/AA and or counseling to address addiction or abuse issues that the offender may have but may not be aware of.
Athletes who are Sober – Positive Examples
Much of the time, especially in athletics, we look to those who play among the professional ranks for inspiration and examples. Sadly we see a lot about those sources of inspiration in the news as negatives. Stories of DUI’s, public drunkenness, fights in clubs and bars, gun related issues make us rethink our inspirations but rarely do we hear about the athletes who abstain from drugs and alcohol.
For one reason or another many athletes chose to not drink alcohol. Whether it is religious, performance related or even past histories with addiction you can find many athletes, who are at the top of their game that chose not to drink alcohol.
As I began researching this idea I found a lot of soccer players from around the world who abstain from drinking. I’ve found one of the major reasons for this being the fact that soccer is played almost every day and almost year round with many seasons played for upwards of 11 months out of the year. When you have to be at the top of your game for 11 months out of the year alcohol just cannot be a part of your life. David Beckam (LA Galaxy-England), Crisitano Ronaldo (Real Madrid-Portugal) and Chicharito (Manchester United-Mexico) are just a few examples of top soccer players in the world, all from very different backgrounds and places in the world who have decided to not drink alcohol.
Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time does not drink alcohol. Like I’ve stated before there are many reasons why athletes chose not to drink and Muhammad Ali has abstained from alcohol since his conversion to Islam in 1964.
Albert Pujols is another great example of an athlete who does not drink for many different reasons of which his religion and performance are key factors.
What about those athletes with a personal history of addiction? As we see in the news and on SportsCenter all the time there are plenty of athletes who have personal struggles with drugs and alcohol. Three examples that come to mind are Andy Reid, Brett Favre and Josh Hamilton.
Many of us may not know that Andy Reid choses to be sober but have heard of the sad story of his son Garrett, back in August. Garrett’s life has been chronicled in the sports pages and on the news with his troubles with addiction ending with his death at training camp in Lehigh, PA in early August. After talking with friends in the organization it’s evident that Andy has been abstinent from drugs and alcohol for personal reasons he has kept for many years but when you see how drugs and alcohol effect your family it is easy to stay away.
In 1996, after winning the NFL’s most valuable player award Brett Favre announced that he was voluntarily checking into the league’s substance abuse program for his abuse of prescription pain killers. Over many of the previous year’s Favre stated that the drugs were always to readily available thus allowing him to abuse them. Since his voluntary involvement with the NFL’s substance abuse program he has been alcohol free.
A couple years ago I read the book “Beyond Belief” by Josh Hamilton who is a professional baseball player, most recently playing for the Texas Rangers. Josh Hamilton has a tremendous story of personal accomplishments, struggle and addiction all before the age of 21. Hamilton was the first overall pick in the MLB draft in 1999 and has played in 5 All Star Games.
In 2001 Hamilton was involved in a car accident that killed both of his parents and put him out of baseball with injuries for a while. With the loss of his parents, an abundance of time and money he began to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Over the next 4 years Hamilton was cycled through teams in different leagues and even spent time in the Betty Ford Center for problems with addiction. After finding God and seeking an end to his problem Hamilton has claimed to have abstained from drugs and alcohol since October 6th, 2005. Watch Josh’s story here.
Thoughts… There are so many that come to mind when it comes to this project, our student athletes health and alcohol in general. When it comes to high school students we must always remember that it is a zero tolerance law and adolescences should not drink. Not because the law says so but because people that age are still growing and maturing and the safety of students and student athletes is paramount.
When it comes to legal issues, addiction and abuse it’s very important to realize that those who are going through hard times are good people but have made bad choices. Remembering that we are all human and bad choices are easy to make we must always be there for each other to lend a helping hand.
Having read Sean Coveys "7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens" of one of the most important lessons to learn is to “begin with the end in mind.” Student athletes tend to deal with much more stress and pressures than the average student but it’s always important to think about your future with school and athletics before making bad choices.
As we get started with our new project with the Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition we will continue to learn more about athletes and stress as well as addiction and abuse of alcohol to help provide resources to our community and athletic teams to help our student athletes make constructive and positive choices with drugs and alcohol and become leaders in our community as they are on the field.