Red Right 88

Cleveland sports fan and sports writer

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, United States

quit my job decided to drive west

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Change is Possible

In August, I wrote a column about high school athletes and drinking. I have been shocked by the reaction to the column. Silence. Not a single call, e-mail or letter.

One person, who did not read my column, told me in a conversation that I was living in a dream world and I was completely naive. Kids, specifically football players, drink and there was nothing that anyone could do about it, the person said.

I find that hard to believe. Coaches and team leaders can change cultures. I talked to a coach from outside of our coverage area. He has won a state championship and his teams compete at the highest level year after year. One season, he kicked six starters off his team for drinking and still made a deep run in the playoffs. He repeats that story every year to his team, emphasizing that if you don’t like his rules, he will win with someone else. He also reports that all six players still talk to him and come to him for advice. The players regret their bad decision and how they hurt the team and removed themselves from a chance at state that will never come again, he added.

This coach said someone told him last year that they estimated that 20 percent of his team still drank, but they didn’t make it public or high risk, since they knew the consequences of being caught. He said he was also told that those who did drink, drank more during football and basketball season and, as baseball got closer, they toned it down.

I wonder why that was?

Why do most people wear seatbelts and not speed in areas they know that police cars congregate in? Put those same people on a country highway where there are no police cars and see how fast they drive.

Coaches can create an environment where drinking is unwelcome, but they have to be willing to make huge sacrifices. I was told that in the 1990s (before I got here) a good coach was run out of his job by parents after suspending a star for drinking. I am sure we have all heard some of the urban legends of coaches and administrators looking the other way because a kid was more important on the field of play. It is easy to put blinders on and do nothing. But if a kid makes a fatal mistake, those who looked the other way have to live with that, also.

A coach can try to create an environment, but that coach needs players who are leaders to enforce it or buy into it. I can’t imagine that sitting around on a Saturday night drinking is worth more than a chance to win a conference title or advance to state. As I wrote before, you have the rest of your life to drink. You only get so many chances to be a part of an athletic team before it is gone.

There have been many examples of teams with less talent winning conference titles. Those teams are the ones that are united. Players believe in something bigger than themselves and are able to take the talent they have and increase what is accomplished through hard work and commitment.

My point, simply, is this: people follow the behaviors of those leading. If the seniors get to the weight room in the off-season, the younger players follow. If the seniors get off-season open gyms or workouts then the younger players follow. If a senior throws a kegger, the younger players follow. But if the senior says “You will not ruin my year with your off-field choice,” the younger players will follow.