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This article was published 6/4/2016 (1638 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There was a time when old athletes — like old generals — simply faded away.
The final whistle blew and that was, more or less, the last you heard of a guy.
Whatever happened to…? Beats me. And before the age of Google and social media, everyone was pretty much OK with that.
Sure, you might see a guy surface again for a few days at an oldtimers game or on the occasion of his induction into a hall of fame. But for the most part old athletes — and what we now know were a myriad of post-career problems they were battling — were out of sight and out of mind.
But no longer. It seems not a day goes by anymore where there isn’t another report of the long-term effects of post-concussion syndrome; or of a former athlete dealing with a painkiller addiction; or of a former player, like so many before him, dying too young.
Every sports fan today is as familiar with the acronym CTE as they are with RBI and ERA and we all watch with a mix of horror and fascination as athletes who once did battle on the playing field now do it inside courtrooms in a quest for compensation from leagues who grew rich making them sick.
But a confluence of events over the last few days reminded me while everything has changed, one of the biggest problems facing former athletes is the same one they’ve always faced — and one which still gets very little attention: the battle with the bottle.
First, it was the weekend drunk driving arrests of retired U.S. women’s soccer star Abby Wambach and former Heisman Trophy winner — and former Montreal Alouettes QB — Troy Smith.
Now, I have no idea if Wambach or Smith have a drinking problem — only they can answer that question.
Maybe Wambach was telling the truth when she said she’d spent Saturday evening having dinner with friends and simply made an isolated poor decision at night’s end.
Smith, on the other hand, has a tougher case to make after the release of a dash-cam video depicting a cop asking him how he’s doing and Smith replying, "I’m officer, sir. I’m officer." After maintaining he hadn’t had a drop to drink, Smith tells the officer: "I graduated from Ohio State with a degree in bachelors."
All of which is to say Smith was either really, really drunk or really, really stupid.
Leaving aside the issue of whether a drunk driving arrest on its own is evidence of a drinking problem, this much is clear: If you’re still drinking and driving in this day and age, you have a problem of some kind. And it’s serious.
Then there was the excerpt from a new book by former New York Mets pitcher Ron Darling in the Wall Street Journal Monday, describing how the notorious 1986 Mets — a team littered with players who went on to crash and burn in their post-baseball lives — didn’t confine their drinking to after games.
Darling describes how during the season the Mets won the World Series, the club supplied players with a jar full of amphetamines and late in games, as the buzz was wearing off, players would retreat to the clubhouse and "shotgun" a beer to "rekick the bean…
"They had it down to a science, with precision timing," wrote Darling. "They’d do that thing where you poke a hole in the can so the beer would flow shotgun-style. They’d time it so that they were due to hit third or fourth that inning, and in their minds that rush of beer would kind of jump-start the amphetamines and get back to how they were feeling early on in the game — pumped, jacked, good to go."
Skeptical of a link? Ponder this: A groundbreaking 2014 study of thousands of high school and college athletes in the U.S. found two things: 1. athletes binge drink at a much higher rate than the general population; and 2. they continue to do so once their playing days are over.
Published in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, the study found while there are lots of positive health outcomes later in life that come from playing sports at a high level — you’re less likely to smoke, you’re more likely to eat well — there is also overwhelming evidence to support what we all anecdotally observe from the headlines every day: Jeez, athletes — current and former — sure seem to drink a lot.
I’ll put it another way: There’s a reason Lord Stanley commissioned a cup as the trophy emblematic of supremacy in pro hockey.
And finally there was the superb piece on former NHL first-rounder Scott Glennie in Tuesday’s Free Press by colleague Jeff Hamilton, detailing how a once promising pro hockey career got derailed by "lifestyle choices."
I don’t know what specific "choices" Glennie made or if alcohol was among them.
But it reminded me that for all the talk in pro hockey these days about "mental health" and helping players who are battling "depression," you still hear very little about what is no doubt both the symptom and the cause of the problem for many current and former players — alcoholism.
Which is why full credit has to go to the Los Angeles Kings, who last fall made headlines when they announced the creation of a full time player assistance position that will "focus on the challenges of addiction and substance abuse."
Although the NHL, NHLPA and other leagues and players associations all have various in-house treatment and support programs for players battling substance abuse — and teams like the Winnipeg Jets bring in speakers during the season to talk to players — the L.A. Times reported that the Kings hiring was the first time an NHL team had hired a full-time staffer to help players deal specifically with addiction issues.
Alcohol has been killing ex-athletes since Babe Ruth died at 53 — officially from cancer, but who’s kidding who. Mickey Mantle, soccer’s George Best, hockey’s Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, Pelle Lindbergh, Cleveland Indians reliever Tim Crews — the list of athletes who died directly or indirectly from alcohol goes on and on and on.
It’s a head-shot of a different kind. And the news of the past few days suggests players — current and former — are still taking far too many of them.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.
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