Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Most favored status?

There's been a bit of a storm brewing in our community over the last week regarding athletes in an area high school who were found to be drinking at weekend parties.

Some of the athletes who were caught were prominent ones too. Those who manned up (just an expression) and admitted to it were suspended for the length of time mandated by the state athletic association. Those who chose to weasel their way out ... well ... they skated.

The non-athletes, except for whatever reprimands they may have received privately, were not as adversely affected as the sports figures.

First, let me say this: I absolutely think athletes -- especially the prominent ones -- aren't ordinary citizens within the realms of their schools. There is definitely a caste system at most schools, and the better athletes are generally at the top of the chain.

The higher up you go ... the longer the fall, too. That's just the way it is. I generally don't find too many people who agree with me, especially when names of athletes start showing up in the paper for violating state-mandated chemical health rules.

But there is definitely a balance between the amount of fame fame you acquire -- even if it's on a local level -- for your athletic abilities and the commensurate accountability for your actions. And all I can suggest to people is that if they don't think this is fair, then the obvious answer to that is don't play. However, if you sign on to play, you also sign on to follow whatever rules come with the privilege of taking part (and being a star).

Most of you already know this, but to those who do not, I am the sports editor of a local paper that -- with increasing regularity -- seems to be getting caught up in this game. We've never had firm policy on how to handle it, except perhaps to say that if we find out about it, and if it's germaine to what we do (meaning, could the athlete's absence from a game be relevant to the outcome) then we feel obligated to report it.

This opens up a can of worms that, quite naturally, those most affected feel is unfair, and are convinced that their kids, or their players, are being singled out.

Bear with me. If your son is the starting goalie on the hockey team, and he's one of five kids busted for drinking, and he gets the mandatory suspension, it's not just an in-house matter. It is news. It doesn't matter if the other four kids -- all of whom have lesser roles on the team -- also got caught and suspended. The news value of a sub being suspended isn't quite the same as it is if the star goalie, or quarterback, is put on ice for two weeks.

Look at your school as a small microcosm of the NFL. Tom Brady's knee injury, and Ben Roethlesberger's problems with the law (and subsequent six-game suspension) were covered as major events. Some guy on the practice squad, or a special teams player, could do the exact same thing, and suffer the exact same consequences, and it's a note in the SportsLog (of whatever the various papers call it).

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association's rule on substance abuse is pretty cut and dried. If you're caught drinking, you face suspension. It used to be two weeks, or two games (whichever constituted the greater amount of time) and has since been amended to a quarter of the season for the first offense (60 percent if it's a second), and a loss of captaincy if applicable.

Some schools harden that rule so that students are not simply accountable if they're drinking, but equally accountable if there's in the presence of alcohol. This puts some people in a real sticky wicket, because now we're talking about timing. Let's say you're at a party, and you walk in and see a bunch of people drinking.

You walk back outside and call your parents for a ride home (because you want to do the responsible thing), but can't get out of there in time before the hounds of hell descend upon the place. Now, according to the rule, you're just as accountable as the people who were falling-down drunk. There's no distinction.

I can see the gray areas here. And all I can say in response is that it's up to the schools -- and the people involved -- to ferret out the truth in these situations and apply penalties accordingly. And to make the distinction, if it comes down to it, that the person penalized was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

What makes this whole thing difficult is the fact that, as MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel is so fond of saying, it comes down to self-policing. There are so many of these situations that descend into "he-said, she-said," that it becomes impossible to ferret out the truth. All you can do is count on people to be honest, to confess when they've messed up, and to accept the consequences in the same manner that they accept the accolades and special treatment they get for what they do.

I'm not a big believer in turning over every rock to dig up the names of athletes caught in alcohol/drug stings. But I think that when you find out about it, and if it rises to the level of "news," you can't ignore it simply because "he's just a kid who made a mistake."

There have been enough stories of athletes who have been coddled throughout their high school years, and who have gone on to have serious drug and alcohol issues afterward (does the name Jeff Allison ring a bell?) that you wonder how helpful you are by sweeping this stuff under the rug.

Sometimes, you fall into only one of two camps: Either you're enabling people to keep doing what they're doing (in which case they risk ending up paying the piper in ways way more tragic than a five-game suspension from basketball) or you develop a zero-tolerance policy toward the problem.

It's way easier to do the former. It's much easier to look the other way, and not risk the scorn of people who just don't get it ... and who say things like, "oh, come on, everybody drinks."

Maybe. And maybe not. I've met countless athletes who absolutely understand the responsibility they have, not just to their schools and teams, but to themselves. They put their social lives on hold sometimes for the honor of representing their schools in athletics. What do you say to them when someone who doesn't have that level of responsibility is allowed to walk away free after blatantly violating these rules?

But whatever we do, and whatever our motivation, we also have to remember that, yes, they are kids, and that kids, by their very nature, mess up. It doesn't absolve them of their accountability when they do, but I'm not sure it's the best idea in the world to appoint ourselves as de facto nannys either.

While I do believe that athletes have a higher level of accountability -- mainly because of their status as "most favored people" -- I also understand that they're young, impetuous, prone to make bad decisions, and sometimes easily influenced by what's going on around them just like anyone else their age. They are not destined to be career criminals -- or even career drunks -- because they got caught drinking at a party.

If athletes have achieved notoriety on their own merits (meaning if they're become important enough in their realm to write about), and they're caught drinking, and suspended, then newspapers have an obligation to make note of it ... if for no other reasons than to explain why they're missing from games in which they'd otherwise be playing.

To those who cannot wrap themselves around this ... I don't know what to say. We differ.

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