By Ibrahim Abdul-Matin
Steve Sarkisian had a bright career ahead of him. Until a few short days ago he was the head coach of the University of Southern California (USC). At 41 he embodied the young brash high-energy coaching that elite programs attract. As a mentee of former USC coach Pete Carroll (now the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks) Sarkisian was blessed with the mentoring and training to succeed. What went wrong? Why was Sarkisian’s season abruptly cut short?
In the off-season Sarkisian amassed what many considered the best recruiting class in the country. This years USC team is loaded with young talent. They have not played particularly well, but they have all the ability to do so – they could be special. Well, not with Sarkisian. The University of Southern California just fired their football coach because he had let an alcohol addiction spiral out of control. He’d hit rock bottom. Sarkisian has what scholars call a disease of the heart. In a culture surrounded by excess and drinking he was an alcoholic and it has cost him his career.
A number of high profile athletes have also hit rock bottom dealing with alcohol and addiction. Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia took a leave from the team just a day before they were about to play in a playoff play-in game. Former NBA champion Lamar Odom was found unconscious in a Nevada Brothel – among other things they said he’d been drinking cognac. The most widely used drug of choice in the world consistently ruins lives of some of our brightest athletic stars. Why do we let this situation continue?
Alcohol and sports is big business and a public health threat. Beer companies have long been significant partners for most of America’s most revered sports. Football, basketball, baseball, and car racing all reap generous profits from alcohol advertising. In 2005 The World Health Organization Alcohol released guidelines for alcohol and sports advertising. This stems from research that shows that drinking inhibits an athlete’s ability to perform but also that alcohol use in sports advertisement has a negative ripple effect. Ads are targeted at children and link an active lifestyle with consumption of alcoholic beverages. Even though in most places advertisements are regulated they still appeal to youth. This has detrimental affects on some societies. Citing the number of frequency of alcohol related deaths there exists a movement in Ireland calling for a ban of sports and alcohol advertisement.
Alcohol is a part of sports culture. Many athletes, coaches, and owners do not know when the party ends and that some people are sick. Some people are alcoholics or have the propensity for it. A Yemeni family that I know recently came face to face with addiction. Their youngest, drank and drifted and his sickness led him onto the streets. Eventually he landed in a treatment center. He needed a lot of help. Most people who have alcohol addiction issues need a lot of help and a lot of love and they are not getting it.
Culture change is needed. Celebration time needs to be reimagined. C.C. Sabathia took part in a raucous locker room celebration – a baseball tradition – where players douse themselves in champagne after winning to advance to the next level or winning a championship. That needs to change. If sports can become more equitable landscapes they can also become more mindful. Adding alcohol into the mix of celebrations reinforces unhealthy choices. We should also be more stringent about what type of content is allowed. I am all for a ban and I think I am not alone in this opinion.
Sports should be spaces for our children to imagine themselves at their best. Let’s keep in mind people like Lamar Odom, Johnny Manziel, C.C. Sabathia and, of course, Steve Sarkisian and for the sake of the integrity of our sports lets get alcohol out of the promotions and advertisement of all games.
Editor’s Note: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin has worked in the civic, public, and private sectors and on several issues including sustainability, technology, community engagement, sports, and new media. He is the author of Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet and contributor to All-American: 45 American Men On Being Muslim. From 2009 to 2011 Ibrahim was the regular Sports Contributor for WNYC’s nationally syndicated show The Takeaway. Follow him on twitter @IbrahimSalih. The views expressed here are his own.