Normally, the choice to abstain from drinking alcohol is an individual one, but in the case of Cal Poly athletics, it is often a team one.
There are approximately 550 student-athletes at Cal Poly, and many of them are 21 years old and older, so rather than institute a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to alcohol consumption, the university leaves the majority of the rules and regulations up to the coaches and players.
The volleyball and football teams, for example, decide at the beginning of each season how they want to deal with alcohol and other off-field distractions, eventually coming to a collective decision.
“On the volleyball team, we have a dry season, so there is absolutely no drinking during season,” junior middleblocker Jennifer Keddy said. “This year the players and coaches are all in on it, and our captains are the ones who are in charge of enforcing it.”
Team meetings are held to ensure that all of the players and coaches are unified in their stance on the use of alcohol and that players understand the consequences.
Students and residents of San Luis Obispo might remember seeing a football player at one of the bars downtown or a basketball player at a house party, but coaches say their teams are educated early on to prevent any alcohol-related problems.
“We tell them the lasting effects alcohol has on the body,” interim volleyball head coach Caroline Walters said. “They really take it to heart and understand that it just doesn’t end with a hangover, but can carry into Monday’s practice.”
Through increased awareness, athletes acknowledge that alcohol consumption does not improve their chances of success.
“We wanted to stay focused on the season,” Keddy said. “And alcohol definitely doesn’t help your game in any way.”
Junior slotback for the Mustang football squad Deonte Williams echoed Keddy and the volleyball team’s outlook on alcohol during the season.
“At our first team meeting, coach laid out a plan and all of the football team made a pact to not drink during the season,” Williams said. “Everyone over 21 knows they have to be responsible, even when the season is over.”
The athletics department held a nutrition seminar before the year began and discussed the negative effects alcohol has on athletic performance. And Cal Poly athletics director Don Oberhelman, who has worked in college athletics for the last 16 years, said he has seen the damaging effects alcohol has on performance first hand.
“We have had some incidents in the past on this campus, in the very recent past, that keeps it in the front of our thoughts,” Oberhelman said. “We need to be constantly vigilant to try to educate our students to make good decisions.”
Although Oberhelman and several coaches said they would prefer student-athletes not drink at all during the season, all rules and punishments are viewed on a case-by-case basis.
“I think it’s about educating our student-athletes, versus the assumption that they’re just absolutely not going to do it,” Oberhelman said. “I think that would be naive on our part.”
Many of the fans who attend Cal Poly sporting events get pumped up after a big win but players often have practice or another game the next day. Oberhelman said it comes down to what the situation is and whether or not the student-athletes make smart decisions.
“It’s OK to enjoy the moment, but going out and partying is only going to hurt them when they play in that next match,” Oberhelman said.
By letting each team have its own alcohol policy, Oberhelman said coaches can adjust the rules and punishments to best fit each team’s needs.
“I think as the athletics director, the best thing I can do in those situations is let the coach handle the situation as they see fit,” Oberhelman said. “They know the student-athlete, they know their team and they know that much, much better than I do.”
For example, football players only have one game a week and, usually, have the next day off to recover, but baseball players generally play a series which lasts for several consecutive days.
Baseball head coach Larry Lee instituted a dry-season policy for his team two seasons ago, and said he has been pleased with the results so far.
“It was just something I felt we had to do,” Lee said. “As the head coach, I’m the last one to find out about things, and sometimes I don’t hear about things until a year later.”
Before coming to Cal Poly, Lee coached at Cuesta College. He said even now he still hears stories involving players and alcohol that he was unaware of.
Although he has trust in his players, Lee said student-athletes are held to a higher standard than the regular student.
“As an athlete, like it or not, you’re one, a role model,” Lee said. “Two, you’re in the public eye, and you never want to do anything that will leave a black eye on Cal Poly.”
Since he started working with Cal Poly baseball, Lee said he has had some problems with his players and alcohol, which was part of the motivation to institute the dry-season policy.
“In my 10 years, we’ve had some drinking and driving incidents,” Lee said. “You have to suspend them and get them alcohol counseling and meet with them to decide how important their college education and baseball is for them.”
Oftentimes, the player’s sport is an important part of their’s and their teammates’ lives, so they look out for one another. Football head coach Tim Walsh said he, like Lee, has had a few alcohol related incidents but that a lot of what goes into regulating the players is done internally and between teammates.
“What I ask our players to do is to make sure they are taking care of each other,” Walsh said. “If one of our players is under the influence, make sure they’re not driving, make sure they’re not acting in a manner that’s inappropriate and make sure they get home.”
While making sure that student-athletes are well educated on the effects of alcohol, in the end it comes down to players making smart decisions. Walsh said that he lets his team know their actions off the field can certainly hinder their performance off of it.
“If you understand that there are consequences with the decisions you make, then you’ll hopefully understand how to behave and how to keep things in check,” Walsh said.
In some cases, alcohol-related incidents can derive attention away from the competition and exploit the athletes. For instance, the biggest college football game of the opening weekend, Oregon versus LSU, was overshadowed by the off-the-field behavior of players on both teams.
LSU’s starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson was arrested prior to the game for assaulting a man at a bar and Oregon’s cornerback Cliff Harris was arrested for reckless driving and possession of marijuana. Their arrests drew interest away from the game that featured the No. 4 and 5 teams in the country to start the season.
“We know that what we do on and off the field reflects on the team and university,” Williams said. “The season is dry because we can’t have players represent the program like that.”