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Nowhere to run or hide from sport’s risky booze culture

26 March 2011 3,379 views 3 Comments

THIS year has already witnessed several leading sportsmen whose lives and careers have been severely tarnished, if not destroyed, by their alcoholism, and sometimes other addictions.

Despite the widely reported good intentions of troubled sports stars, it is not easy for a person to stop drinking and stay stopped, then negotiate the world without resorting to alcohol or other drugs, or to compulsive gambling. Anyone who has experienced the ravages of alcohol addiction and who has tried to beat it knows the immensity of that task.

So what’s the best way to proceed and recover?

While anti-alcohol drugs such as naltrexone may assist in the short term, by far the most successful agency in keeping alcoholics sober is Alcoholics Anonymous. So, as I often mention to other alcoholic men and women, why not avail yourself of the best?

Yet why, despite its strong track record over many decades, do so many health professionals denigrate or undervalue AA?

Perhaps the root of the problem is that AA (like its offshoot Gamblers Anonymous) is a lay organisation, run by non-professionals. The only requirement for membership of AA is a desire — no matter how inchoate or ill-defined — to stop drinking. There are no fees for membership; it is a self-supporting fellowship of people with a shared goal funded by whatever members choose to give.

The success of Alcoholics Anonymous lies in the fact it is based on members helping each other. Thus, alcoholics can learn to stop drinking and stay stopped, one day at a time, by attending AA meetings and using the 12-step program of recovery.

It is often an insult to trained medicos and psychological-psychiatric therapists that lay people can help their alcoholic patients when they cannot.

The concept of alcoholism as a health problem that cannot be dealt with by willpower is anathema to much contemporary psychiatric and psychological thought. Some psychoanalytically trained professionals argue AA members put the cart before the horse because they suggest first dealing with the drinking, then seeing what’s left after the drinking has ceased.

Modern medicine has difficulty with AA because it contends there is no cure and that alcoholics remain alcoholics all their lives, in the sense they remain at risk if they drink again.

Sportspeople who have fallen from grace are often reported as having depression and mood control and anger management issues and sometimes problems with gambling. This may be true, but when almost all their misadventures involve being drunk (and-or drug-affected) it is clear the basic problem is booze.

However, the term alcoholic is such a loaded one that most PR machines and managers will go to any lengths to avoid using it. A recent welcome exception was Australian rules footballer Brendan Fevola’s former manager, Alastair Lynch, who made it clear the 30-year-old player suffered from a form of alcoholism and a gambling addiction. Unfortunately for Fevola, he and Lynch parted ways this week.

The booze culture is so widespread across sporting codes it is almost impossible for a successful player not to be part of that culture. The liquor industry’s sponsorship of sporting events (and often advertisements for online betting) is on blatant display at sports grounds and on television every weekend.

This may be fine for the social drinker or occasional gambler but it can be an almost irresistible temptation to the vulnerable.

The reluctance to call a spade a spade — that is, use the word alcoholic — is so widespread that many alcoholics are left undiagnosed to suffer, deteriorate and die.

Many health professionals and counsellors seek to steer troubled patients and clients towards the goal of “controlled” or “moderate” drinking. Though this may work for some, for an alcoholic it will invariably end up on the rocks of addiction. For this reason, AA suggests alcoholics aim for total abstinence.

This approach has been validated by studies, most notably by Australian-born George E. Vaillant’s The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited, published by Harvard University Press. By looking at the results of his research, Vaillant realisedthe suggestion that alcoholic men or women can learn to control or moderate their usage during the long term — that is, three years and beyond — is a mirage.

The same applies to people addicted to drugs other than alcohol. Thus the only safe goal for alcoholics and other addicts is to learn not to pick up the first drink or drug, one day at a time.

The solution seems simple enough. In practice it often proves very difficult. An alcoholic person may readily admit alcohol is having a detrimental effect on their life, and on the lives of others (most often family members). They will promise never to repeat the behaviour that is the cause of grave concern. However, if they continue to drink, their conduct will almost inevitably be similar, and often worse, than the behaviour that led to their promise.

This is why permanent abstinence is so important. When an alcoholic person picks up a drink, even with all the best intentions in the world, they cannot guarantee their behaviour.

To a large extent, alcoholism is still a hidden disease. Unless it manifests itself in the guise of a person living in a park, in an old army coat and drinking muscat from a brown paper bag, many people think they, or people they know, are not alcoholics. In reality, the disease of alcoholism affects all social classes and usually, though not always, can be seen early in a person’s life.

Meanwhile, in many parts of the community, drinking to excess is still regarded as a rite of passage. There is a growing trend, especially among younger persons, for the rite to continue into full-blown alcoholism.

Sport is overly represented in advertisements for alcoholic products. Sportsmen (more so than women) appear in adverts for products that have little to do with sport. If anything, a sportsperson’s capacity for excellence will be marred by the consumption of alcohol. Yet the two activities, so diametrically opposed in so many respects, have a strange symbiotic existence.

No matter how strong or smart or determined, or how well they perform on the field, most alcoholics cannot stay off the booze in the long term without help. In most cases, the exercise of willpower does not work. Hence the most sensible approach for alcoholic (sports) men and women is to attend AA meetings regularly and learn how to achieve long-term freedom from alcohol and other drugs. In the process, they will regain their lives, their self-esteem and, hopefully, their sporting careers.

Ross Fitzgerald is a member of the NSW government’s Expert Advisory Group on Drugs and Alcohol and author of My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey (New South Books).

The Weekend Australian, March 26 – 27, 2011


  • Michael O'Brien said:

    Sport, grog shouldn’t mix

    ROSS Fitzgerald’s article concerning alcohol abuse in sport is timely in that, at least in New South Wales, there will soon be a fresh set of eyes looking at this increasing problem (“Nowhere to run or hide from sport’s risky booze culture”, 26-27/3)

    Outsiders can be as persuasive as they like but without the individual realising that alcohol has them in its grip, little is likely to occur.

    As Dr Fitzgerald points out, AA is the most successful agency in helping alcoholics beat their addictions.

    Sportspeople are today’s heroes; they must be exemplary in their behaviour.

    Where they suffer from what is not something of their making (alcoholism is not a moral failing, it is a medical condition), they should take the lead from people who have shown that alcoholism can be arrested.

    Checking into expensive rehab units that regard themselves as above the principles of AA, will almost inevitably end in failure.

    Michael O’Brien, Newtown, NSW
    Letter to the editor, The Australian, March 29, 2011

  • Gary Dixon said:

    Booze culture our shame

    ROSS Fitzgerald’s piece on sport’s booze culture (“Nowhere to run or hide from sport’s risky booze culture”, 26/27-3) was long overdue but will no doubt be dismissed by the alcohol industry and the sporting codes.

    Fitzgerald needs to know that he has a growing audience that admires him and supports his message.

    We do not subscribe to the insane belief that a mind-altering, addictive and poisonous substance can be part of a proud country’s culture.

    No one is calling for prohibition, but until alcohol is viewed through the same prisms as tobacco, Australia will continue to be ravaged by what is surely its most serious social and medical problem at present.

    Gary Dixon, Amamoor, Qld
    Letter to the editor of The Australian, March 30 2011

  • Boozelbub said:

    Keep up the good work Ross. As someone who is 3 months into my journey of being sober, I appreciated your comments.
    Ciao, Boozelbub

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