If there is one thing to take away from the most recent USC football scandal, it’s not that the program is in disarray. (It looks that way.) It’s not that Pat Haden messed up the biggest hire of his athletic director tenure. (He did.) It’s not that the team entered a season with high expectations and underperformed. (It surely did.) It’s that former head coach Steve Sarkisian needed help.
After August’s Salute to Troy incident, where he became inebriated and uttered things one shouldn’t in front of parents who entrusted you to care for their kids, it should have been evident Sarkisian was not emotionally and physically equipped to run a college football program, because he was battling his own problems. Some took it seriously, some made jokes of the incident and dismissed it as idiocy and not a genuine warning sign (myself included, shamefully). The referendums written on the state of the program cannot hide that, if reports are believed, Sarkisian has an alcohol addiction and needed to seek help outside of the confines of an incredibly stressful job. “Based on the input of trusted medical professionals and staff, it was determined he could continue coaching while seeking treatment,” Haden said Tuesday. “I felt a great deal of compassion for Steve Sarkisian.”
Alcoholism, and addiction, are shitty and can be difficult to grasp or discuss. But it’s evident that if Sarkisian regularly drank the amount of alcohol reports indicate — such as a whole bottle of tequila after a win last year with remarkable speed — legitimate help beyond in-season counseling was necessary. As such, he’s now facing this, as he spends the next 30 days in a rehabilitation center.
No amount of superiors, medical professionals, or family members can be the sole cause for someone to earnestly confront a personal flaw of this magnitude. The power to accept and want change can only come from within, a desire to change and receive help. It’s not just 12 steps and AA meetings; that’s not really for everyone, and effectiveness varies. As someone with addicts who share last names and blood, the similar thread to wanting to change is the willingness and desire of the sick individual. I heard stories of family members thinking dropping to three beers a night was a marked improvement, and another of a lock-in cold-turkey interventions for cocaine. The drug isn’t for pleasure, but rather the way to endure the labor of life. It’s near impossible to kick without a concerted effort against the high.
By endless accounts, working and competing in FBS football as a head coach can leave little time to tend to one’s health. Coaches are lionized for their work ethic, sleeping on couches, and hustling for double-digit-hour days to uncover any weakness in the next opponent. It’s truly their life. When personalized stories pop up of neglected families, like Lane Kiffin’s kid asking if he would actually spend the night at home, it’s a heartbreaking, yet fleeting reality check of the gig. But those are hard to recall, forgotten on Los Angeles nights and careers that end on airport tarmacs.
Given that player and subordinate coaches are so frequently around the head coach, it stands to reason they can perceive when something is amiss. A secret so overpowering has the strength to seep through any attempt of masking and privacy. It wasn’t shocking when former Sarkisian players at Washington chimed in to tell anonymous accounts of the coach’s liquored breath during team meetings. Or digging up receipts of pre-noon drinking on a business trip. Or when former Husky player Danny Shelton tweeted a sarcastic “#shocked” after Salute to Troy, or his ex-teammate Shaq Thompson opting for the laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying emoji. Or when reports surfaced of coaches yanking Sarkisian away from a huddle because he might not have been sober. Player know what’s really going on with their boss, the man tasked with recruiting them, overseeing their growth into young men and potential professionalism.
It appears players and coaches, past or present, didn’t speak to quell Sarkisian’s self-destructive path. This isn’t an indictment or criticism of them, but rather of the corporate identity of high-stakes athletics and anti-snitch ethos. No one wants to rat on a superior’s wrongdoing. A popular childhood maxim is to never be the tattletale. The hope is that eventually, someone will find out, and whoever debated revealing the details will be absolved of any worry or responsibility. No one loudly spoke up because they probably didn’t feel comfortable in doing it, being the one to get someone close to them in trouble. The pressure of winning, keeping a job, grasping to a scholarship, smothers an infrastructure of openness. It’s difficult to care and consider someone else when someone battles their own struggles and challenges. Not that it’s bad, but it’s how we are. Few are the benevolent saints who can set aside their self for another. It sucks no one, or not enough people, expressed worry for Sarkisian’s state, but it sucks more that the MO du jour cultivates a culture of silence.
The solution, like many, can’t be achieved instantly or even in a short period: That’s naïve. It requires not systemic changes, but mindset ones. Rhetoric was spouted at USC about fostering an atmosphere of compliance after sanctions, but an atmosphere of culpability and concern must be fostered next. Sarkisian isn’t the first troubled football coach, and he won’t be the last. But he’s certainly the highest profile one, given the time in which and the school at where he coached. It can be a tragic, landmark moment in how addiction in sports is handled and confronted. Players endure frequent criticism when not being able to prevent smoking weed or popping PEDs, so much so that it seems routine, even in a post-Ricky Williams world. This hasn’t been discussed about coaches, because it hasn’t happened and amplified in a similarly colossal fashion.
Showing up to work in no shape to run a program, reportedly intoxicated, ended Sarkisian’s tenure at USC, a public act that couldn’t be hidden. His dream job was no longer his. On the outside, Sarkisian is a talented man with as many traditional resources accessible to help any issues he had, but was unable to, resorting to serious, professional help. “Steve Sarkisian is a good person,” Haden added Tuesday. “I wish him the absolute best. He has my support, our support. We remain concerned for him and hope he focuses on his health and his well-being.”
It’s initially disheartening for someone of his prestige couldn’t handle the struggle and get the help he needed (only after disappointing on-field results), but his seeking professional help might spawn some good. There are upward of 10 million Americans stricken with the alcoholism and feel as hopeless as Sarkisian might. But his willingness to, at least, pursue help outside of himself could usher hope for others toiling to find any. It starts with simply looking for aid, and Sarkisian has. Hopefully it encourages others to, too.