High school athletes need Phelps to help them keep their lives afloat

On High Schools

High Schools

April 26, 2005|By MILTON KENT

DEAR Michael Phelps,

Forgive the intrusion into your personal space in such a public way, but this seemed like the best way to enlist your help on what is becoming a life-and-death matter.

In the past six weeks, high school athletes in our area are getting involved with alcohol at ages when they are hardly equipped to handle it, and someone needs to set them straight in a visible way.

First, 14 Dulaney spring season athletes were barred from competition for a month for their part in a party in early March where 176 people were cited for underage drinking. Then, a number of Mount St. Joseph athletes were suspended for being present at a party where alcohol was present. Last week, four Wilde Lake girls lacrosse players were banned from playing for a month after they were caught on film drinking.

Of course, parents or coaches or teachers could deliver the message that the positives of drinking before you're ready are far, far outweighed by the negatives, but since when do high schoolers listen to grown-ups, especially authority figures?

They could listen to police, but it would really be better for all parties concerned if it didn't get to that stage. The cops have other things to tend to, and kids ought to limit their contact with law enforcement as much as possible.

Frankly, kids are much more likely to respond to a message that comes from a peer, or someone who was a peer in the not-so-distant past. And, if the word comes from someone in the spotlight, someone they respect and admire, and from someone who has, to coin a phrase, swum a few laps in their pool, then it goes down even more smoothly.

And that's where you come in. What young athlete in Maryland doesn't know who you are, doesn't revere you for all those gold medals you collected in the Athens pool last summer and doesn't want a piece of your fame?

More to the point, you know where they've been and where they're headed. Not to bring you down, but your arrest in Salisbury on drunken-driving charges last November gives you credibility on this subject with them that 10 speeches from an adult could never attain.

The messages they are getting now are mixed at best. For every beer company TV ad that preaches responsibility, there are three or four more that sell the good life and better times through throwing down a brew with friends.

And the NCAA, which many of these kids will be a part of down the road, isn't helping. After years of banning beer ads during the men's basketball tournament, the NCAA knuckled under and let CBS run alcohol commercials during last month's proceedings.

Talk about March Madness; how could the NCAA be so indifferent about the signals it was sending?

Our local student-athletes need to hear from you that being an athlete brings not only adulation but also responsibility, that it's not just about them, but about the organization on the front of their jerseys.

Rightly or wrongly, virtually everything they do reflects on their school and their team. Athletes are, like it or not, the faces of their schools, and when their reputations are tarnished, the entire campus takes a hit.

As a part of your guilty plea on driving-while-impaired charges, you've already been speaking to smaller groups of kids in the Salisbury area, and that's terrific. But lots of kids, especially those who play organized sports, need to hear what you learned from that fateful night.

So, here's what should happen: The local public school boards of education as well as the governing officials of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland should send letters to the coaches of every sport they offer.

Coaches, in turn, could tell student-athletes that there will be an assembly at 1st Mariner Arena or Towson Center early in September, once the new school year has started.

Attendance won't be mandatory in terms of their grades or school records, but if the athletes want to play in their sport of choice next year, they'll have to be there in sufficient numbers (say 75 percent of their respective squad) or else their team will forfeit a game.

And you, Michael, will be the guest of honor. You can speak from the heart about what that night in Salisbury was like, from the first drink to being in custody. You don't have to scare them straight, as it were, but they have to hear it from someone who matters to them, and like it or not, you're the guy.

If it all sounds draconian or melodramatic, so be it. To this point, no one associated with any of these incidents has died, but you know, perhaps better than most, that's just the luck of the draw. The incidents of damage and injury in accidents involving teenaged drivers is higher than for others, and it is still higher for kids who drink.

You told a group of Parkside students: "I'm here to talk about making good decisions, because I made a bad one that could have endangered myself or someone else's life. I wasn't seeing the total picture."

There are apparently a number of Baltimore-area athletes that aren't seeing that picture, Michael, and you are the perfect person to help them put it in focus.

Signed,

A concerned fan

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