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Steve Sarkisian and Sports Alcohol Culture

Steve Sarkisian’s indefinite leave of absence from the USC football program, announced Sunday, shocked sports fans and media alike.

That Sarkisian’s departure is unprecedented is, in and of itself, shocking, given the alcohol-fueled culture of sports.

Sarkisian is the second high-profile figure to exit his team this month. In the nation’s other major media market, New York, pitcher C.C. Sabathia left the Yankees just before their AL Wild Card game against the Houston Astros to check into rehab.

Various alleged details surrounding both Sarkisian and Sabathia are remarkably similar. The New York Post reported Sabathia’s drinking carried over into team activities, much like anonymous reports Sarkisian arrived to practice Sunday in no condition to work.

USC athletic director Pat Haden avoided the A-word, alcoholism, in his impromptu address to media Sunday. The university’s official release followed suit. The descriptions, however, details the symptoms.

Imagine describing an absence from work due to cold sweats, achy joints and extreme lethargy. The conclusion one would reach is flu.

The ambiguous, albeit telling, language used to describe Sarkisian leaves you to draw your own conclusions, especially after Sarkisian’s highly publicized, intoxicated speech to attendees at August’s Tribute to Troy.

It’s noteworthy because of Sarkisian’s prominent job, but he may just be one of the 16.6 million the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports suffer from an “alcohol use disorder” in the United States.

That figure only accounts for the abusers. There’s no telling the millions directly impacted by alcoholism: friends and family, and in the case of Sabathia’s Yankees and Sarkisian’s Trojans, colleagues and pupils.

If nothing else, Sabathia and Sarkisian’s struggles playing out in the national spotlight might reach a few of those 16.6 million amid the alcohol-soaked clatter of sports culture.

Tune into a football game, and you are inundated with advertisements for booze. The beverage industry helps fund sports, in part because sports spectators are the key demographic. Alcohol has been intrinsically woven into the fabric of the American sports-viewing experience. Toasting friends at a tailgate or around the living room on game day has become its own bit of Americana.

But there are negative consequences, too.

Reports of booze-powered brawls among NFL fans has become as commonplace on Sundays as accounts of breath-taking touchdowns.

The plague of fighting reached an inevitable nadir just hours after Sarkisian’s announced leave of absence in Arlington, Texas, following the Cowboys-Patriots game, when one participant shot another. A local TV report says, “police believe alcohol was a factor.”

An eyewitness speaking to the Star-Telegram said he “see[s] fights all the time.” Separate from this particularly ugly incident, that in itself is a problem.

And it’s increasingly common around sporting events, an epidemic Gregg Doyel took a deep examination of last fall for CBS Sports.

Details from Sunday’s incident are especially ugly, painting a picture that needs to force some introspection among the fan community.

Alcohol itself wouldn’t inspire such evil, but excessive drinking can exacerbate it.

Sarkisian’s departure from USC or Sabathia’s from the Yankees isn’t the fault of marketers or distributors. Through rehabilitation, hopefully both can find and solve the cause of their struggles.

Sports aren’t to blame for alcoholism. Though growing in popularity, sports were not the cultural behemoth they are today when the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919 and made law in 1920; and sports certainly had no impact on the temperance movement of the 19th Century, which helped build support for the 18th Amendment.

However, the popularity and prominence of sports in today’s society gives its figures a platform to reach some of the 16.6 million Americans dealing with alcohol problems.

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