Wednesday, June 24, 2009

UI's AA: Alcohol and Athletics

June 28, 2009, 8:45 a.m.

Alcohol, Athletics and the Inevitability of the Avoidance of Responsibility
(brought to you by*)

We have a serious problem right here in River City, and I've finally and reluctantly come to the conclusion that nothing effective will ever be done about it. I'm referring to the consequences that flow from alcohol abuse by college students, athletes and non-athletes alike -- as well as non-college, and older, individuals.

This is not a new subject for this blog. See, e.g., "Getting Real About Alcohol/Don't Get Tough, Get Effective," January 18, 2008; "Hawkeyes' Criminal Record Lengthens," February 25, 2008; "University of Iowa Sexual Assault Controversy -- 2007-08," August 9, 2008, et seq.; "Sexual Assaults, Athletics and the Academy," January 9, 2009; "How About Them Hawks -- Again," April 7, 2009; "Drunken Fights and Digital Photos/We're Going to Fight, Fight, Fight at Iowa!" April 13, 2009 (with links to 8 earlier blog entries).

Nor is the situation getting any better, as the Press-Citizen reports,
Despite efforts to change it, the issue of binge drinking and the scene on Thursday night is pretty normal for Iowa City. A new report indicates heavy drinking, drunken driving and alcohol-related deaths among U.S. college students is getting worse.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports alcohol-related deaths rose from 1,440 in 1998 to 1,825 in 2005 among 18-to-24-year-old students . . ..

Sarah Hansen, associate director for education at UI Student Health Service, has been working on the alcohol and drug assistance program for the past nine years. UI has long reported higher than national averages in drinking use among students, she said.

Hansen said 67 percent of UI students reported binge drinking, according to survey results released in April.
Brian Morelli, "College binge drinking numbers on the rise; Figures not surprising, UI official says," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 24, 2009.

Bear in mind that we are talking here about what is, by any conceivable measure, the nation's number one hard drug problem. It is involved in roughly half of all crimes (give or take, depending on the category of crime). It causes more economic loss than any other drug (e.g., property damage, absenteeism at work). It can cause far more serious, and permanent, medical/physical harm than most other drugs. Among college students it is a contributing cause to poor academic performance and dropouts, injury from accidents (including drunk driving), rape and other unwanted sexual contact and pregnancies, fights. The list goes on and on.

So why is so little done about it? Here is the brief comment I posted on the Press-Citizen's Web site for Morelli's story:

The problem is that there is no political will in this town to do anything but wring hands. The bar owners have the money and the students have the votes. The University doesn't want to upset the local bar owners and City Council, and the City doesn't want to unnecessarily embarrass the University. Some adults recommend 18-year-old drinking; others were problem drinkers as college students and don't think it's a big deal now for their kids. So we go on spending foundation money "to curb binge drinking" while watching the numbers hold steady or rise -- and collecting tuition from the binge drinkers (before they drop out).
On re-reading that sounds a little more harsh than I'd put it now. I just think it's a description of the political reality. The stark fact is that there is no organized special interest group to take on these issues. There are special interest groups quite prepared to defend themselves against such a campaign.

That being the case, I just think it's very unlikely that anything meaningful will ever be done in this town by the City or University to curb what is a major public safety and public health disaster. (Certainly, the City Council's recent efforts to limit the creation of additional bars within walking distance of the campus -- is it true there are now already 50?! -- will do little more than lock in the profits of the resulting oligopoly of bar owners and protect them from additional competition while in no way limiting the illegal student access to alcohol.)

Nor do things look a whole lot better on the football field. As Scott Dochterman reports,

Since mid-April 2007, 26 Iowa football players have been arrested or issued citations. Twenty of the players had charges or citations related to alcohol or drug use/possession.

Nine players were arrested for public intoxication, five for drunken driving and five were cited for underage possession of alcohol. Two were charged with drug possession. One player was charged for underage possession and public intoxication in another incident.

After an 11-month stretch from April 2007 through March 2008 that included 14 arrests or citations, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz changed some team policies. Ferentz declined to explain publicly what those changes were, but among them was hiring a life skills adviser to help players transition to college life.

“The bottom line of that is we have taken the approach as a team back in March, the beginning or prior to spring ball, with this roster we have now and it took shape, I think March 1 is when that happened ... we have talked to our team to draw a line of demarcation at that point,” Ferentz said in July 2008. “I would hope people would be fair enough to judge us from what happens from then on.”

Since Ferentz’s line of demarcation, the alcohol-related tickets and arrests have continued. Not counting sexual assault charges filed against two former football players for an October 2007 incident, 10 Iowa football players have been arrested or cited. All but one included an alcohol-related charge."
Scott Dochterman, "Mims: Alcohol-related incidents not ‘epidemic,’" The Gazette, June 27, 2009, p. B1.

In fairness to the football program, there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that, at a minimum, the coaches would like to be able to avoid the adverse local (and national) publicity that comes with the criminal records of their players. Beyond that, my sense is that -- however inadequate -- they are probably doing more with their student athletes than the University is doing with the rest of the student population, and that the coaches would be the first to acknowledge it has not been enough.

As I've suggested before, it's possible that it would be worthwhile for them to put even more emphasis on knowing more about the criminal or anti-social records of the recruits before they are brought to Iowa City. There are obvious limits to what any athletic program can do to reverse behavior patterns, attitudes and an "I'm so special the rules don't apply to me" sense of entitlement already firmly ingrained in a 17-or-18-year-old.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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John Neff said...


There were about 80 names on the football team roster but I think there may be other players that are not listed for various reasons. In any case the players listed are 0.4% of the UI undergraduate enrollment.

They were responsible for about five public intoxication arrests last year out of an estimated 506 public intoxications arrests of UI students per year (1% of the UI undergrad student arrests). The estimate is based on a 26 week sample of jail bookings. I do not think the difference between 0.4% and 1% is significant.

As we all know the UI administration does not like bad publicity but the majority of the students are 18 and older and are legal adults so unless they violate the code of student conduct or are arrested on campus the UI has to keep hands off. However it appears that drug offenses are different and if the student does not clean up their act they can be expelled. If an athlete violates team rules they can be kicked off the team but they can continue to be students if they so choose.

This is not a new problem the history of drunken brawls is at least 3,000 years old.

John Barleykorn said...

Just be glad we don't have European Soccer "Fans". Once you see that Nick, you wouldn't complain about a Saturday aftermath in University Heights again.

Anonymous said...

What is the linkage between readily available cash and the increase in multiple occasions of binge drinking? Are student loans available in amounts significantly higher than actual costs (tuition, books, room/board) leaving excess money to spend on non-essential items for the educational process? If this is true, are we enabling the students to indulge in behavior that at one time would have been beyond what shold be their actual means? (I truly do not know the actual answer to this but have heard that it is possible to borrow in such a manner.)

At the risk of sounding trite, back when I was attending college, funds were available to pay for the essentials with a modest amount of money left over for entertainment on weekends, etc. Budgeting this money would not allow for multiple occasions of drinking but probably did allow for an occasional bout of overindulgence. With this in mind, are the economics at hand today for a college student the same as they were 25-30 years ago? If not why not? This is a time in life where sacrifices can be made to learn a pattern that can support yourself throughout your life.

Maybe its time to rein in the lending practices in this area as well so that students leave with a smaller debt load as well as a cleaner criminal record. You can't drink what you can't buy.

John Neff said...

There is a NYT editorial on binge drinking today 7/1/09 that is relevant.