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High-profile alcohol abuse cases rock sports world

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There is plenty of drama on the field in the months of autumn. College football is now fully into its conference seasons while Major League Baseball will determine the participants in the National and American League Championship Series this week.

Unfortunately, plenty of off-the-field drama surfaced in recent days involving two different teams, two different people and two different sports in our nation’s two largest cities. The two people involved need help and will get it one way or another.

On the eve of the baseball playoffs, New York Yankees’ pitcher C.C. Sabathia revealed that he would be seeking rehab treatment for alcohol addiction. While he was not scheduled to pitch in the Yankees’ Wild Card Game against Houston, a game they lost, the timing shocked the sports world.

Sabathia is no longer the dominant pitcher he was just a few seasons ago, but those not intimately involved with the Yankees were taken by surprise. The front office seemed to have some indication something was amiss.

“I was not expecting that situation to come my way (this quickly), but it did,” said New York’s General Manager Brian Cashman.

There were telltale signs during the recent past. There was the confrontation with airline employees a few months ago and an incident at a nightclub during the season. For the first time since 2006, Sabathia was ejected from a game despite pitching well in that game.

As things built up, it appears an intervention of sorts took place. Sabathia’s wife, Cashman and Yankees’ Manager Joe Girardi recommended treatment. Sabathia, to his credit, took that advice.

On the other coast, University of Southern California Head Football Coach Steve Sarkisian is taking a leave of absence as of Sunday. The reason, according to USC Athletic Director Pat Haden, is the coach “is not healthy.”

Sarkisian’s conduct over the past three months leads to no other conclusion that he, like Sabathia, has an alcohol problem. There is visual evidence and eyewitness testimony.

Before the season, Sarkisian showed up at a university event and spoke almost incoherently. Once the season began, the Trojans have woefully underperformed on the football field despite quality talent.

On Sunday, he held a team meeting where players said he “didn’t seem right.” Sarkisian did not stick around for the scheduled practice following the meeting, prompting Haden’s action.

There is every reason to feel concerned for the coach’s health. Unlike Sabathia, Sarkisian did not volunteer to enter rehab and there is no evidence he intends to get the help he needs. Hopefully, he will take that step.

Haden told team members their coach would be taking the leave of absence and Offensive Coordinator Clay Helton would take over. Sarkisian has been silent.

Haden hired Sarkisian from the University of Washington two years ago to lead USC back to the Promised Land. Today, that return is delayed, replaced by genuine concern for the coach. Reports are now surfacing about similar behavior by Sarkisian when he was at Washington.

Has anyone ever heard of the word “vetting”? Did anyone at Washington ever talk to him or try to help him?

Has the USC athletic department, from the athletic director on down, taken an interest in his personal well-being or has 18 months of enabling led to what happened yesterday? Sarkisian needed what C.C. Sabathia got.

Football coaches are there to coach football, but the good ones become role models for the players they coach. They can have a strong impact on a lot of lives.

Does any of this have anything to do with those of us living a couple of thousand miles away from Los Angeles? It sure does for Quinton Powell of Deltona,  Claude Pelon of Orlando and Leon McQuay III of Seffner.

These three Trojan players from Florida, and their teammates, count on their coach to lead them to success during their four years at USC and to help build their character for life after football. Their families and friends wish the same.

They would also want what is best for Sarkisian. In today’s world of drug testing, alcohol problems are too often under the radar because alcohol is legal. Those falling under its influence need help just as much as drug addicts.

There is good reason for optimism in the case of C.C. Sabathia. Let us hope, for the sake of Steve Sarkisian, someone will help him get his compass pointed again in the right direction.

He may never coach for the Trojans again, but he must focus on something far more important: his life.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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