Is sport a means of keeping troubled teenagers out of trouble and vices?
Sport, or recreational sport as we often refer to it, is a big part of the American social landscape. In my experience as a counselor and family therapist I see many families and individuals struggling with substance abuse and/or teenage diversion type disorders related to sport. I think the first question that needs to be asked is why sport? Why do people choose a sport as a distraction, as in, a way of keeping troubled teens away from drugs and other vices? And, secondly, why are teenagers engaging in dangerous behaviors associated with recreational sport?
The answer lies in understanding what causes children to seek diversion or escape from reality. Consider the classic story of Henry Bird, who was arrested for breaking and entering. He was actually on his way to buy some chicken. His excuse for going into the chicken store was that he needed his mom to pick him up and he didn’t want to go to jail because he lived next door. So he broke into the store and made off with a few boxes.
This is a perfect example of how some teens find themselves unable to deal with their substance abuse problems or troublesome thoughts. As a family law attorney, I am always frustrated with the inability of the courts to keep these kids away from risky behavior. It seems that the courts are more concerned about protecting the victim (i.e. the teenager) rather than addressing the problem (drug and alcohol addiction). So while it is true that sport can be a significant factor related to substance abuse, there is no real proof linking sport and addictive behavior.
This brings us back to the original question, “Is sport a way of keeping troubled teens out of trouble?” The problem here is that the answer to that question is complicated. Yes, in most cases it is. But, as was mentioned above, there can be a variety of factors that contribute to a child being troubled or not. So then, how does one figure out which is the best way to help them?
For instance, drug and alcohol rehab centers have special programs for troubled teens. These programs include team sports, individual therapy, and life coaching. In any case, if a troubled teen is exhibiting behavior that is disrupting their normal life or other group functions such as school, church, or neighborhood association functions, they most likely need some type of intervention and assistance through a sport-based drug or alcohol rehabilitation program.
Another factor that can be looked at here is the social impact of sport on society. Since athletes are generally considered to be ‘in demand’ by other people, it creates additional problems for people who are either already experiencing substance abuse problems or are at risk of developing problems with substance abuse in the future. This means that the problems created by drug or alcohol abuse can lead to even more behavioral problems in the future. This is why schools and communities are now looking at the correlation between sport and substance abuse/addiction.
Finally, there is a direct correlation between is sport a way of keeping troubled teens out of trouble or getting into trouble in the first place. Consider this: when a teen athlete is suspended from school, or is forced to give up sports due to illegal use of substances, it has a serious negative impact on their social life, family life, and school life. They will fail miserably at their studies, they will be alienated socially, and they might even end up hurting themselves or others. Ultimately, it means less money in the school budget, less funding for community services, and fewer resources for positive activities.
There are many ways of thinking about a sport as a way of keeping troubled teens out of trouble, but all of them fall short in one crucial respect: they assume that drug use in sports can be cured by being rewarded with sports success and recognition. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a cure for drug addiction, because drugs are substances intended to be used. Any attempt to teach drug addicts to be sober or to self-manage their drug use, then, is an act of rehabilitation. Schools, parents, and communities must work together to address the problem of drug use in sports, instead of turning to punishment as the only response. Only when drug use is viewed through the lens of rehabilitation will we begin to see real change in the lives of those who abuse drugs.