USC has long been a bastion of the Southern California lifestyle, the educational embodiment of what America thinks of as fun. It's got perfect weather, beautiful women, and partying -- all centered around a fabled football team. Peel back the covers, though, and you will find that underneath it all, it's just like everywhere else, which means you will also find the flipside of a never-ending party, substance abuse, and addiction.
I went to USC in the late '80s/early '90s and I'd looked forward to the girls and the fun, but what I found instead was a world with neither floor nor ceiling. I spent most of my time there in the grip of a low-grade depression, which I treated with self-prescribed doses of alcohol. I squandered my potential and baffled my professors at my underwhelming showing, despite being bright. No one noticed. I did wander into an AA meeting at the suggestion of a campus counselor but nobody else came.
Like all enduring institutions, USC has many traditions, and it's proud of them. But it also has a tradition of looking the other way at a culture that is steeped in alcohol and other drugs. Consider the example of Todd Marinovich, the greatest quarterback that never was. Consensus says an abusive father screwed him up in the end. But what about his drinking problem?
What about everybody's drinking problem? Game days on campus are an intergenerational drunk fest, with alumni fondly and vicariously giggling at undergraduate hijinks while everyone gets sloppy and boundaries get murky. While USC certainly isn't unique in this sense, it certainly isn't unique in thoughtfully addressing it either.
Recently, Steve Sarkasian was put on "indefinite leave of absence" to "seek help." This kind of vague euphemism is part of the problem. His alcohol issues are known -- many have even been caught on tape, the latest was in August -- and many more have surely not been. USC chose to cloak this in mystery even though it's no mystery. It's like a dysfunctional family dinner where everyone is pretending that uncle Bob isn't drunk again. Or a pop idol or movie star bailing from a gigantic tour or movie production due to "exhaustion."
The Sarkasian announcement couldn't be more different than that we just saw with the New York Yankees. C.C. Sabathia seems to have started his recovery early by hitting it head-on with a bold and honest announcement that he is seeking treatment for alcoholism. Are the Yankees more evolved than the Trojans on issues of mental health? Whatever the case, it's a far better policy than Pat Hayden's attempt to sheath the whole culture of drinking at Troy in a brown paper bag.
It wouldn't take a Rhodes Scholar to draft and implement better policy. All it would take is some simple education about what alcohol abuse is and what it is not. It is a health issue that requires treatment once a certain point has been reached. It's not something that Hayden can treat with stern warnings behind closed doors at Heritage hall. The USC athletic department should have acted after Sarkasian's speech in August, and likely way before that. What they did was the equivalent of telling a tailback to walk it off after tearing his ACL. The outcome was predictable and avoidable.
The great irony in all of this is that the sports world invests mind-boggling amounts of money and effort in the physical health of its athletes: in nutrition programs, orthopedists, trainers, and more. But what about their mental health? Most schools will tell you that they have a sports psychologist for that. But they're clearly not doing enough and it's not addressing off-field issues. A better functioning human will be a better functioning coach or athlete. Patrick Kennedy says, "We all need a checkup from the neck up." What if that kind of attitude were truly part of our sports culture? Would there be fewer stories like those of Todd Marinovich, Ray Rice, and Steve Sarkasian? We'll never know unless we try.