Is it time to ban alcohol in sport?

By Tom Harverson
England Cricketer Andrew Flintoff

Andrew Flintoff: Reportedly struggling to control his drinking.

It’s a debate that has raged for years – the effect of alcohol on sports stars.

This week has seen another chapter written in the chequered history between players and booze; firstly England cricket captain Andrew Strauss admitted that Freddy Flintoff is still struggling to control his drinking.

The 31-year-old all-rounder missed an organised team trip to a WWI cemetery in Belgium due to a heavy one the night before, and everyone will remember the infamous ‘Fredalo’ event in 2007 where the star was found drunk at sea on a pedalo.

On Monday, French rugby starlet Mathieu Bastareaud was admitted to a psychiatric ward in Paris for observation after the centre reportedly tried to kill himself by jumping into the Seine in the French capital.

The 20-year-old, who is a cousin to Arsenal footballer William Gallas, had been thrown off the French tour of New Zealand after he claimed he was attacked by five Kiwi rugby fans during a night out.

But in a statement through his club Stade Français the player admitted to falling over drunk in his room and damaging his cheekbone. Fearing an iron fist response from the Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR), Bastareaud concocted the fairytale about the fans but later spilt the truth to team officials.

Football is no different. We could pick one of many players that has been caught with their trousers round their ankles due to alcohol – literally in some cases, eh Nicklas Bendtner?! Joey Barton of course is another and most recently injury-ridden Spurs defender Ledley King was arrested after a drunken assault in London.

The next morning his manager Harry Redknapp pledged to instill a drinking ban from next season at the London club insisting that, “Footballers should dedicate their lives to playing”.

And so we arrive at the question, should there be a unilateral alcohol ban across all professional sport?

YES

Redknapp gave the best metaphor following the King arrest, “You shouldn’t put diesel in a Ferrari. I know it’s hard but they are earning big money, they are role models to kids.” The role model thing is probably the biggest issue for sportsmen who cannot have a night out and escape the photographer’s lens.

Earning big bucks and being in the spotlight brings added responsibility meaning you can’t go out and get hammered, stagger home via chicken hut and pass out on the front step. We all look up to different sportsmen and the impression they leave on kids is deep and longer lasting.

Beyond the responsibility issues lies performance. If a footballer is on upwards of £70,000-a-week they cannot justify pumping substances into their body that are going to affect their on-field results. Alcohol impairs the fitness, reaction time and ability to be at the top of your game. To get the best performances out of any sports star, it is essential that they don’t drink to ensure that their body is at its best.

The days of rugby players drinking before, during and after a game are gone, and George Best’s glory days cannot be relived by modern day players of any sport – except maybe darts. The era of multi-million pound players, professionalism and sponsorship deals means that alcohol can no longer be a part of sport.

NO

Why shouldn’t a player or athlete be allowed to drink? Everyone else in every other profession does it – doctors, opticians, police officers, taxi drivers… It isn’t often that footballers at the highest level spend an evening out on the sauce, and it is normally the same ones every time that do. What’s wrong with letting your hair down at the end of the season or going out with your mates if you don’t have a game or a race meet for a few days?

Sport has to have a social side and in many cases a night on the tiles can be key to the development and bonding of a team. Anyone who has seen the ‘Living with Lions’ DVD which documents the behind-the-scenes build-up to the 1997 triumphant Lions tour of South Africa will know how vital alcohol is to removing the inhibitions of players and constructing a truly united unit.

The key is moderation. During the Lions film there are two or three occasions where the team go out as a squad and drink together in a pub or restaurant in a controlled atmosphere. That is different from heading to the nearest club and taking advantage of the three-for-one deals on shots. In calling for allowing sports stars to drink it is not to permit binging but just to loosen the strings to allow a professional – as in any career – to relax.

There is no right answer to the conundrum of alcohol in sport and every manager and agent has a different take on the issue. But with controversy still surrounding the debate, I don’t think it will be long before one sport attempts to introduce a blanket alcohol ban and perhaps the rest will follow sync.

In 2007 the NFL introduced a ban on teams providing alcoholic beverages at team events including on buses and flights. The interdiction applies to all members of the club, including personnel, and expands upon the original ruling that prohibited alcohol from team locker rooms.

With perhaps a couple of exceptions, this is the situation in most professional sports outfits, but if alcohol abuse by sports stars continues – as seen with the most recent and persistent rule breaking by Aussie cricketer Andrew Symonds – how long will it be before sporting authorities call time at the bar for alcohol in sport?
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