Pickens' Perspective: High school athletes need a lifestyle change
It seems many high school athletes today are not being accountable for their actions off the field.
Before you tune me out and assume I'm going to bash kids, I'm not the one making this allegation. John Underwood is.
Parents and young athletes who weren't at Fairfield University for Underwood's presentation Wednesday night missed essential info.
Underwood was an All-American runner in college and has championed a code of conduct for the American Athletic Institute. As the institute's founder and president, he has administered 14,000 physiological tests at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., over the course of 20 years.
He knows how athletes minds work. And sometimes they take destructive turns.
Underwood was brought to Fairfield after about 15 local parents told school officials they fear drug and alcohol use and lack of sleep among students -- including athletes -- is becoming an epidemic in this town.
Underwood said studies show that 83 percent of all college athletes use alcohol and 33 percent use marijuana. Those who drink have a 55 percent chance of injury, while those who don't have a 24 percent chance of being hurt, he said.
But the roots of substance use go back to middle school age. The average when males have their first drink is 11.9 years, he said. The average age for females is 13.1.
That means the average child has consumed at least one full drink before he or she reaches high school. I regularly deal with high school students, and they don't behave like adults. They shouldn't be regular drinkers.
But Underwood's research shows many athletes that age are regular alcohol and/or marijuana users.
High school was not that long ago for me, and I remember hearing about the Friday and Saturday night parties. I also know that in my senior football season at Immaculata High in Somerville, N.J. was nearly ruined because a captain was drinking in school.
Our season was further damaged when three players were dismissed from the team for using steroids.
So I know what in-season drug and alcohol abuse can do to a team.
Underwood's research shows that 58 percent of all 12th grade athletes have used alcohol. That's alarming. Among the broader population, the average 15 year old uses alcohol once a week, he says.
Alarming, yes. Startling, no.
Alcohol abuse by college students has long been common. But Underwood warns that adult behaviors like drinking and drug use are trending to lower, and lower ages.
He attributes rampant substance use among teens to absentee parents and peer pressure. I know personally Fairfield kids who regularly go to class under the influence.
Underwood has developed a code of conduct for high school athletes that seven states have adopted. More than 600 New York schools have signed and executed the abstinence policy that -- to be effective -- requires support of the board of education, coaches, school administrators and parents.
I had the privilege of attending two of the four presentations Underwood gave in Fairfield. And I challenge Fairfield adopt the code and embrace it. Simply listening on the sidelines makes it clear alcohol and drug use is prevalent among Fairfield athletes. And adults close to sports programs confirm it.
Do I know specifics? No. But I don't need to. Students talk about partying on non-school nights and breaks -- such as spring vacation later this month. Unless your head is very deep in the stand, you can fill in the blanks as to what happens.
What happens to those young bodies?
Underwood's research suggests that the physical effects of one night of binge drinking kills two weeks worth of training. Yet athletes still drink and smoke during the season.
Almost once a week, I get a call from a parent complaining that I've written something negative about their child. Yet some of those same parents don't nip their kids'drinking and drug use in the bud.
What are your priorities?
I'm challenging the town, athletic administration and students to put its money where its mouth is and enact a code of conduct similar to Underwood's. It's all well and good to recognize problem and put a spotlight on it. But without swift and bold action, it will quickly get swept back under the rug.
This means engaging with children, starting a dialogue and establishing real consequences for behavior that hurts the team and themselves.
If we all truly care about our youth and want what is best for them, why wouldn't we?