Thursday, August 03, 2006

Why don't they just go back into the woods?

Coach Brown had an excellent post on parenting that began with a quiz from Marc Fisher of the Washington Post dealing with parents, teenagers, and alcohol. I agreed with almost everything that Coach Brown said, but I'm not sure I agree with what the quiz seemed to imply. I would never condone idiotic parents sponsoring booze parties for their kids and friends, but I am not at all comfortable with the status quo when it comes to the way society handles the combination of young people and alcohol.

In Minnesota the primary vehicle that schools have to deal with alcohol and drugs is the Minnesota State High School League through its eligibility rules. Students who are caught consuming or possessing "prohibited substances" face suspensions from extra-curricular activities anywhere from two weeks to a full year depending on whether it is a first offense, second or third.

An early turning point in my career took place when I had to suspend some hockey players at Mt. Iron in 1979 for bringing alcohol on the team bus as we traveled to play a game in a town sixty miles away. One of my assistant coaches smelled alcohol on the breath of one of the players, so we pulled him off the ice before the game even began. When we got back home, we asked some questions and it became apparent that he wasn't the only one. The next morning I began asking more players more questions, and by the end of that day the number involved had climbed to ten. At that time the penalty for a first offense was nine weeks, and since there would only have been a couple of weeks left in the season by the time they returned, I decided to suspend them for the entire season. We ended up finishing the season with one senior, one junior, and the rest sophomores and freshmen. Our junior varsity became our varsity.

Today, with the increased awareness that students and their parents have of their rights and due process, things would be done differently. The athletic director and principal would conduct the entire investigation and there would be hearings for kids who claimed they were innocent. One thing our society has taught in the last twenty-five years is that if you lie about something you've done, you can often avoid having to face the consequences, so there would probably have to be a lot of hearings.

Back then, I got no assistance from the school--I was totally on my own--and I suspended a player if two witnesses told me that he had been drinking. Only two of the suspended players denied that they had been drinking, and one of them was actually one of the ringleaders. I did have a couple of parents, who said that they were representing others, come to me and complain about the way I handled the situation. They thought the whole thing should have been swept under the rug.

To this day I am embarrassed about this incident. How can a bunch of players bring beer onto a bus, and have the coach, who is sitting in the front of the bus, not know that anything is going on until the bus ride is over? The fact that I could have been so naive is not something I’m proud of. I'm sitting there in the front of the bus with my assistant coaches thinking about the big game, while our players are in the back of the bus having the high school equivalent of a fraternity party.

I said before that this incident was an early turning point in my career, and the amazing thing is it became that because I ended up being turned into a hero. A reporter for the Duluth Tribune heard about the incident and wrote an article about it, and then a couple days later, the newspaper ran an editorial lauding me for suspending the players. All of a sudden, instead of an incompetent, tunnel-visioned, naive fool, I was a virtuous disciplinarian. No kidding!

We did not win a game that year, but after the Tribune's article and editorial, that seemed to make what I had done even more noble. Going 0 - 17 made me a heckuva coach! I got a great reputation throughout northeastern Minnesota, and I was looked upon with a new respect in our school and community. It even ended up helping our hockey program because it gave our younger players so much experience, and after that year, we managed to string together six winning seasons in a row.

I think this incident says a lot about the way we deal with alcohol and young people in our society. It's crazy! We make laws and rules based on the idea that alcohol is bad, and we expect the police and the schools to enforce them. In the meantime, we deluge young people with messages through movies, TV, advertising and the actions of many of their parents that booze equals gorgeous women, handsome men, sex, smiling faces, and good times in general.

If asked whether they believe in our rules and laws dealing with alcohol, the vast majority of people will say that they do, but I'm not sure that's actually the case. It really is reminiscent of prohibition, when many people said they believed banning alcohol was a good idea, but they would simply wink whenever the laws were broken. We tend to be a lot like that with our teenagers today. During my years in northern Minnesota, there have been several social events from which teachers and coaches I've known have stayed away because they didn't want to be put into the position of having to "catch" a high school athlete drinking. When high school athletes have been caught at some sort of public function or a party at somebody's house in town, I don't know how many times I've heard adults say that if kids are going to drink, "they should just go back into the woods like we used to do." If that's the way we feel, then why the heck do we have the rules? Excuse me for speaking such heresy, but as a teacher and a coach, I don't appreciate being put into a position where I'm supposed to help enforce rules about which society really isn't serious.

There are many things that our society views as being responsibilities of parents, but teaching children how to handle alcohol isn't one of them. In fact, the rules and laws we have actually work against that. We tell ourselves that we care about our children by making these rules forbidding them from using alcohol, and the role of the parent is to make sure their "good kids" don't break those rules. But then we send them off to college, and it's as if we say, "Okay, go nuts!" Let's face it, no matter what the drinking age may be, there aren't many college students who are going to abstain until they're 21, and when they do begin drinking, it will be to get drunk. We all know the terrible things that can happen when people drink irresponsibly, so when we send our kids away to college, we hope and pray that booze doesn't kill them or hurt them, or cause them to get into serious legal trouble, or cause them to become alcoholics. There's got to be a better way, but I just don't know what it is.


Anonymous Amy Hendrickson said...

Interesting topic, Dennis. One that is often not discussed. I agree that there has to be better ways of dealing with the issue, but I'm not sure what those ways are either.

Your comment about the Minnesota State High School Leauge being the main way of handling the issue speaks a lot. How do we handle the issue at all with the kids who aren't athletes? I would say that we don't handle it all.

Sadly, in our school this year, it wasn't just alcohol that kids got into. Not sure about your area of the state, but meth has officially hit some of the 16-18 year group here now ... with very, very sad results.

Thanks for getting me to think!

Amy Hendrickson

8/04/2006 7:59 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thanks for your comment, Amy. Your point about kids who aren't involved in extra-curricular activities is a good one, and they are generally the ones who end up getting into the most trouble. That's not as big a problem in smaller schools like ours, where the great majority of kids are able to participate, but it must be a very big problem in larger schools where a higher percentage of kids aren't able to fit into anything.

8/06/2006 8:41 AM  
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