Every day we hear another story of an athlete, on all levels of competition, from every age group who loses his or her life due to steroids, drugs alcohol and/or reckless behavior.
As a kid growing up in an athletic family, at an early age I grew to appreciate athletic competition, teamwork and sportsmanship. If you were interested in athletics, you knew that something more was going to be asked of you. If you were not open to discipline and were not willing to go the extra mile as an athlete, you were discouraged to participate in team sports, especially high school and college varsity athletics.
As a young junior high and high school athlete, I remember my coaches distinctly emphasizing that, as athletes, more was expected of us. They stressed that we represented more than just ourselves; we represented our school as well. They also stressed that as varsity athletes, people expected us to be leaders on and off the field. We were expected to lead by example.
As young athletes, we took very seriously, what our coaches put before us! In high school, at the beginning of every season, we were reminded in clear and simple terms, what was expected of each of us academically, socially and humanly. They did not mince words, especially in regards to drug and alcohol use and smoking. We did not have contracts to sign. It was all about your word - and your word was your bond! Our captains were expected to hold us accountable - end of story!
Recently, I was talking to a varsity football player who was just named co-captain of his high school football team. He is an exceptional athlete, student and human being. He is definitely an excellent role model for his peers. He spoke about how excited he was about being tapped by his coaches to be one of next year's team leaders. I asked him what he thought that meant. He said all the right things - and I believe he really meant everything he said. However, I don't think he fully realizes how being a team leader on and off the field is going to put him in some really tough social spots with his teammates.
We talked about what to do if he witnessed social behavior that violated school policy and team policy, especially around drug and alcohol use. I was impressed that a seventeen year old already has a strategy in his head on how to respond. His strategy is right on. The hard part will be if a teammate does not respond appropriately and the coaching staff/school personnel do not step up and do their part. That's going to be the challenge and is probably a very unfair position to put a high school varsity football captain in the middle of.
As educators and as coaches, we need to revisit our expectations of our athletes, both on and off the field. We need to redevelop a game plan that will hold all athletes accountable and responsible. Our coaches and our school administrators need to practice what they preach and not perpetuate a double standard for athletes. It clearly demeans the value of athletic competition and athletic leadership.
In most high school student handbooks, there is a paragraph about athletic eligibility. In that paragraph, there is an overview of what grade point average athletes must maintain in order to participate in varsity athletics. Unfortunately, too often school administrators do not hold athletes accountable in this area. Oftentimes, it is for very noble reasons, but nonetheless, in the final analysis, it is not necessarily in the best interest of the student athlete.
A more positive approach might be to identify students that were at risk academically at the beginning of the season, provide them with student tutors, and monitor their academic progress very closely. Most weak student athletes, given the proper academic support, will succeed, especially if they really want to play ball.
High school student athletes need to be reminded that they are not playing professional ball. Academic success should be their first priority. School athletic programs should aggressively support academic achievement on the part of all athletes and not make excuses for their athletes who struggle with academic success. Unfortunately, too many coaches and athletic directors ignore academic expectations, especially if the athlete in question is an excellent player and team leader.
In addition to clear guidelines about academic compliance in the student handbook, there are also clear guidelines around illegal steroid use, drug use and alcohol use. At the beginning of the season, coaches make it clear that these behaviors are unacceptable for student athletes. Unfortunately, in too many high school and college locker rooms, that is where the conversation begins and ends. Coaches and athletic directors do not consistently monitor these social behaviors.
Unless certain athletes are blatant about their noncompliance, too often a blind eye is used regarding these issues. Thirty years ago, it was a rarity for high school and college athletes to drink recklessly and smoke pot. If they drank or smoked at all, it was before or after the season.
Over the past twenty years, drug and alcohol use among high school and college athletes has increased exponentially. In addition to increased use, there is a new attitude that recreational drug use is not a big deal; that too many adults are overreacting and need to lighten up.
In the 1990's, schools across the country responded to the increased use of drugs and alcohol among athletes by asking them to sign a contract promising not to use or consume any illegal substances or chemicals during the season. The contract indicated very clearly, what the consequences would be for noncompliance. For any illegal drug or steroid use, the usual consequence was immediate expulsion from the team. For the consumption of alcohol, it was usually a few games suspension.
When the contract strategy was initiated, most involved were energized to implement the contract and hold athletes accountable. However, as time passed, the contract became more of a symbolic gesture than a rule of force.
Today, few high schools have a contract or any other mechanism to hold athletes accountable for their social choices. It seems to me that it is time to revive the contract and raise the bar for our varsity athletes.
In addition to having varsity athletes sign an abstinence contract, I would strongly urge schools to add a clause agreeing to random drug testing during the season. Many school communities that have a contract and a drug-testing clause in place see it as a wonderful tool for helping athletes remain responsible and accountable.
Although less than five percent of all high schools across the country have such a program, drug testing is common in schools throughout Texas, Florida, Kentucky and parts of California. Nationwide, as many as one thousand schools have established programs, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The number of schools administering drug tests is expected to grow. Federal funding for it increased four hundred percent from 2003 to 2006. The Bush Administration has spent $8.6 million on such programs, and wants to spend $17.9 million for the 2008 fiscal year.
Whether or not this approach to rising illegal drug and alcohol use among athletes is effective is still too early to tell. As a concept among athletic directors, coaches and parents, it is still very controversial. Some believe it's a real invasion of students' rights; others believe it's too punitive; still others feel it is a positive tool for calling our athletes to greater accountability.
Drug testing is not the miracle cure for reckless decision making among athletes. However, it is a positive step at raising the bar and reminding athletes that they need to lead by example and be held accountable for all their social choices.