By Benito Vila
In Texas the 1970s, it was said that boys were not men until they went to a ZZ Top concert, built their own car and outran a cop with it.
Rites of passage being what they are, Pierson athletic director Montgomery Granger has been considering how to best counteract a prevalent problem in many school districts, the use of alcohol and drugs by athletes.
In attending the Suffolk County Athletic Director’s annual safety conference in Wading River in January, Granger was introduced to an eye-opening presentation prepared by John Underwood, president and founder of AAI (American Athletic Institute) in conjunction with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYPHSAA), the governing body of New York State high school and middle school athletics.
An expert in drug and alcohol effects on human athletic performance, Underwood has advised and worked with the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Navy SEALS, the United States Olympic Committee and Olympic athletes, and various professional, college, and high school teams and athletes throughout the country.
The culmination of a five-year study, Underwood’s presentation, “Year Five: Life of an Athlete,” sets forth research data and a series of recommendations that Granger has been slowly introducing to Pierson parents and administrators.
In describing the take-away from Underwood’s work, Granger said this week, “The purpose of the program is to ensure that all members of the community take a stake in eliminating drug and alcohol use among youth.”
“I am planning to introduce it to multiple stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, coaches, parents, community leaders, student athletes, and anyone else concerned with the health and safety of youth in Sag Harbor. The first step is awareness. Being aware of and admitting there is a problem is the first step to solving the problem.”
“I have shared copies of the presentation and its references and resources with administrators, parents, community leaders, teachers, and coaches, and through the coaches we will share the information with our student athletes. I also plan to share the information at meetings with parents and student athletes in the spring and in the fall.”
In describing the response thus far, Granger added, “I have had tremendous positive feedback from the parents and community leaders on the Athletic Council. One member, Robert Evjen, agreed to preview the materials and share his thoughts and feelings about it with the Council, which went extremely well.”
Granger pointed out that part of the initial “stakeholder charge” is to inform parents of the Suffolk County Social Host ordinance, which specifies criminal penalties if an adult allows minor children to consume alcohol on their property. He noted, “This fact probably got the most response from the Council, and several comments were made about how there is a social acceptance of underage drinking in the village.”
When asked what was the greatest good he could see coming from this discussion, Granger said, “It’s to see our most precious resource, the children of Sag Harbor, protected and cared for by all stakeholders of the community. This means admitting the problem and not tolerating its prevalence. Not to punish anyone, but to help those who are breaking the law and hurting themselves to get help and value a drug and alcohol-free lifestyle.”
“The takeaway has to be folks looking in the mirror and deciding if they are going to be part of the problem or part of the solution. There is no middle ground here. If they want to help, there are many ways, from talking with their children, to talking with their neighbors, teachers, administrators, coaches, and community leaders about how this problem must end, for the health and safety of the children, and for the future of the village.”
The Study Itself
The most astounding part of the 29 Powerpoint slides is the obvious realities that are so easy to overlook. In evaluating the habits, preferences and experiences of athletes, Underwood’s study looks at a subset of society that is self-motivated and trained to be competitive and intense.
That orientation that serves athletes so well in the field can be their undoing off it, especially in “experimenting” with alcohol and drugs. Underwood simply calls them “at risk.”
The study suggests that the most critical age for modeling behavior around alcohol, communicating boundaries and appropriate health priorities is the period between fourth and sixth grade. And describes the drinking patterns found in middle school athletes and high school athletes.
Its most telling image is a billboard stating, “One night of drinking can undo as much as two weeks of athletic training.”
The study also states “Social drug use continues to be the catalyst for nearly all negative behaviors in the high school athlete.” And, “If you mess with your brain, you mess with your body. Without any doubt, the brain and central nervous system must be at optimal functional level, if optimal athletic performance is to take place.”
Underwood goes on to describe that athletes tend to see drinking as “partying”, “the reason for socializing” and “what you look forward to”. He also notes the escalation from “try it”, “get a buzz”, “get drunk”, to “regularity.”
In mentioning drinking games, Underwood describes them as “another form of competition”, and quotes kids as saying, “This is just what we do.”
It’s slide 16 that has the data that’s hard for any athlete to ignore: the effects of a hangover reducing performance by 11.4% and players that drink being twice as likely to become injured.
That slide also states that intoxication inhibits muscle recovery, muscle performance, muscle synthesis, the immune system, hormone production and compromises reaction time.
That’s all obvious to anyone who’s ever tied one on, ZZ Top or no ZZ Top.