Extended extracurricular suspensions teach tough lessons about drinking and competing

Dec. 19, 2004, midnight | By Kristina Yang | 16 years, 1 month ago

Printed as "Athletes sobered by a dose of reality"

Two months ago, basketball player Cate Rassman, a junior, would not have thought twice about marking "no" on question 24 of the Penn State University application: "Have you ever been dismissed/suspended for disciplinary reasons from any secondary school, Penn State or any other institution?"

Today, however, Rassman cannot help but wonder about the effect that her answer to question 24 will have on her admission to the Division I athletic powerhouse. After receiving letters of interest from over 20 colleges and leading the varsity girls' basketball team in points scored last year, Rassman ended her Blair basketball season before it began this year after she failed a Breathalyzer test at the Homecoming dance. Less than an hour before the dance, Rassman had downed just enough alcohol to register on the Breathalyzer and to unleash a barrage of consequences that would force her into checking "yes" on Penn State's 24th application question.

By consuming that alcohol, Rassman joined a growing list of local athletes, ranging from Olympian Michael Phelps to much of the Churchill varsity girls' soccer team, who have found themselves intoxicated and in trouble during the last few months. She is not the only Blazer caught in such a bind; since the fall season began on Aug. 15, four other Blair athletes have been found intoxicated while on school grounds. With the administration cracking down on student drinking after a spate of alcohol-related accidents county-wide, these athletes have been forced to face the harsh consequences of their drinking"not only on themselves, but on their teammates as well.

Passing the bottle

According to senior Christina Ji, who was suspended from the varsity girls' lacrosse team following an alcohol-related incident at a football game, drinking is by no means a rare occurrence among varsity athletes. Though she declines to name specific individuals, Ji says that she knows many athletes who "go out and party specifically to get drunk" or who "show up to games under the influence, even play under the influence."

Rassman, who was suspended from the varsity girls' soccer team as well as the basketball team, agrees with Ji, saying that she too knows a number of Blair athletes who drink during the season. "There are extremes," Rassman explains. "There are people who are completely against it and people who go to parties and drink all the time."

While some Blazer athletes keep up their drinking year-round, most report that they tone down their alcohol consumption during the season. "Most people tend to go down quite a bit or stop altogether," says junior football player Aaron Simon, who was also suspended from athletics after being breathalyzed at the Homecoming dance. "It's hard to be athletic while you're drinking and smoking," he explains.

Rules of the game

Merely cutting down on drinking during a sports season, however, is not enough to keep an athlete out of trouble. While Athletic Director Dale Miller reports that MCPS has no unified policy regarding athletic suspensions for students caught drinking, he explains that Blair requires all athletes to sign a Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug Use Policy form before they are allowed to play for any team. As the form states, a first-time alcohol offense entails an "automatic extracurricular suspension for the remainder of the season or 45 school days, whichever is longer." Additionally, the policy gives Blair administration the right to further discipline offending athletes however it sees fit.

While the administration has not traditionally gone beyond the athletic department's guidelines, Principal Phillip Gainous decided this year to begin extending the extracurricular suspension. Instead of 45 days, athletes caught drinking are suspended from all school-sponsored extracurricular activities and events for the rest of the school year"which means that, unlike in previous years, even athletes who do not play a sport during the season in which they are apprehended are ineligible when their season finally starts.

According to Gainous, the primary motivation behind the extension stems from the epidemic of teenage accidents on the road that has occurred in the past few months. According to The Washington Post, 17 Washington-area teens have died in car accidents since the start of this school year, and alcohol was a factor in several of those crashes. "The loss of life in this county in the last month is unbelievable," Gainous says, expressing his view that Blazers need to wake up to the dangers of alcohol consumption, especially in conjunction with driving. "Students need to understand how important this is," Gainous explains. "I don't have a lot that I can use as a deterrent; extracurricular activities are the only deterrent I have."

How much is too much?

To some Blair athletes, however, the year-long suspension from sports seems to be more of a push towards the bottle than away from it. "It doesn't make sense," Simon says of the increased penalty. Because practices and games take up a large amount of an athlete's time after school, "[the suspension] just means people have a lot more opportunities to go out and do more stuff and get in trouble," he explains.

Ji agrees with Simon, adding that suspending athletes from extracurriculars for an entire school year deprives them of a supporting community that could help them turn away from drinking. "During lacrosse, I have a support system," she says, "and it's ridiculous to take people out of positive environments." Instead of lengthening students' suspensions from extracurriculars, Ji feels that Gainous should have sought alternate means of emphasizing the importance of not drinking. "I think there were other ways I could have served [the punishment], give community service or something," she says. "Don't take away something positive, because that's the worst form of punishment."

While teams can do little to replace lost players once suspensions occur, several affected coaches have begun to recognize the need to prevent athlete drinking before it begins in order to keep the rest of their players from making similar mistakes. "I want each person to be healthy; that's the main issue," says varsity girls' basketball coach James Mogge. To do this, Mogge recently arranged for the MCPS Coordinator of Alcohol and Drug Prevention to lead his team in an "Empower Your Fine Self" workshop designed to teach them about the hazards of drinking, and he has sent out an open invitation to any other coach interested in trying out the same program.

Facing the future

While such seminars may prove helpful in the future, they have come too late for the five athletes who have already been suspended this year, as well as the teams that they would have played on. After losing Rassman and junior co-captain Sophie Esparza to alcohol-related offenses this year, the varsity girls' soccer team had to rearrange its starting lineup. "They were two of our best players," says girls' soccer coach Robert Gibb. "[Esparza] allowed us to take certain risks on offense; [Rassman] was one of our better offensive play-makers." Though Gibb accepts the suspensions as reasonable consequences and feels that the team ultimately became closer as a result of these difficulties, he concedes that "losing [Esparza and Rassman] took a lot out of us."

Knowing that they have disappointed their coaches and teams has been difficult for all of the suspended athletes, but several have realized that their drinking will also have an even more drastic effect on their own futures. For athletes who plan on playing sports after high school, Rassman notes, being suspended from extracurriculars for drinking is not likely to resonate well with athletic scouts. Rassman notes, "Junior year is a crucial year for recruiting." However, she also notes that athletes can still meet scouts if they play outside of school. "Most of my exposure has come from tournaments with my private team," she says. "I'm grateful I still have that chance."

In addition to long-term considerations, the suspended athletes have also had to face the immediate consequences of their drinking. "I was suspended for six days; I had to go to SHARP [the Student Help and Resource Program]; I got kicked off soccer and basketball," Rassman says. "I can't go to prom, and I can't even support my [Blair] teammates by attending games."

"I was grounded for a long time," Esparza says, adding one more consequence to Rassman's list. "To this day, my parents don't trust me."

Though Rassman says that she had not thought about getting caught when she accepted a drink before Homecoming, she now realizes that the alcohol was not worth the resulting suspension, disappointment and missed athletic seasons. "I have no excuse; it was a stupid mistake," Rassman says regretfully. "If I could go back, would I change things?" she begins, and Esparza joins her in an unequivocal answer:

"Definitely," they say together.

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Kristina Yang. Kristina Yang is 1/10 of the Blair girls' volleyball team. When not on the court, she most likely to be running away from Magnet math homework, trying to pay off her three speeding/redlight tickets, or feeding her bubble tea addiction. She would also like to … More »

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