Tackling sport's alcohol culture
Mixing sport and too much alcohol has long been a New Zealand pastime. Kim Thomas looks at the challenges for those trying to break the harmful trend, and some initiatives offering hope.
A few social drinks after the game – it’s the Kiwi way. But you know there is a problem with alcohol and sport when the players turn up drunk.
That was a common occurrence in Gisborne rugby league competitions a few years ago.
Tairawhiti Rugby League Association Secretary Sarah Leach says, “At the beginning of games, you used to have half the team drunk or out of it on dope.’’
Three years ago, the Association decided things had to change. It needed a new PA system and heard funding was
available from the local district health board – with a few strings attached.
The board gave them $5,000 for their sound system and administration costs on the condition they ban smoking on all club fields and in clubrooms.
It gave the Association more money in the second year of their agreement for banning drinking and drug taking from the time its parks opened to until games finished.
In the three years since signing the agreement, Leach says the Association has definitely kept its end of the bargain. The club uses its new PA system to announce its parks’ smokefree status, and Mäori wardens remind people who have smokes or drinks that they are not allowed.
The Paikea Whalers is the most compliant of all Tairawhiti Rugby League Association clubs. Leach says, before the agreement, virtually all players drank heavily and smoked cigarettes and marijuana. Now, only three players continue to smoke.
In the past three years, the Association has received up to $10,000 a year from the district health board, which it used to train referees and coaches, buy uniforms and equipment, and pay for players to travel.
Leach says the agreement was slightly easier to uphold because many of the Tairawhiti clubs do not have licensed club rooms and players usually went elsewhere for after-game entertainment.
The ones that do have clubrooms now open for a few drinks and speeches before encouraging players to go home to their families.
Leach says the scheme was not initially welcomed by many players.
“People were so against it because it wasn’t what rugby league was known for. It has a reputation for heavy drinking, drugs and smoking.
“We still get moans and groans, but we have to abide by our agreement.’’
Attitudes to sport and alcohol are hard to shift. The combination is ingrained in generations of New Zealanders, brought up with rugby, racing and beer.
The after-match function is often as keenly anticipated as the game itself. And while a few socials at the club can boost team and community spirit, they can quickly and easily lead to uncontrolled consumption, fuelling all sorts of problems.
Even at the top of the game, there are numerous examples of players’ dangerous binge drinking.
Think All Black Doug Howlett’s post-World Cup drunken car jumping episode or cricketer Jesse Ryder’s altercation with a Christchurch bar toilet window.
Alcohol damages young sportspeople and their communities too. Every weekend, young players are involved in brawls, drink-driving accidents or alcohol-fuelled domestic abuse.
Peter Shaw is a former policeman who now works as a liquor licensing officer for the public health team in Canterbury. He has seen his fair share of the down side of alcohol and sport.
Shaw says, at the highest levels of sport, players engage in initiation rites involving excessive drinking.
Many club members provide alcoholic drinks to younger players as rewards for a good performance, and drinking sessions in clubrooms often go on into the early hours.
Shaw says, with all the best intentions, good clubs sometimes find themselves flouting licensing laws and having irresponsible practices relating to alcohol, particularly with inexperienced or untrained bar staff.
In these situations, licensing officers try to work alongside clubs having problems rather than take a punitive approach. Shaw says this has seen most clubs improve their behaviour regarding alcohol in the past decade.
In Australia, authorities are applying a more co-ordinated approach to the issue in the form of the Good Sports programme, developed by the Australian Drug Foundation.
The programme has run successfully in parts of Australia for at least 10 years.
Australian Drug Foundation Executive Director John Rogerson says, in the past decade, there has been much debate in the media about top sporting heroes falling from grace after binge drinking sessions.
“A lot of the sports are looking at their brand and what the community is making of it because of players’ behaviour. You now get sports clubs strongly addressing these issues with the players. My concern around all of this is they are actually missing the point. What they are seeing as a player issue is actually the culture of sport, which supports heavy, binge drinking.’’
The solution is building a positive attitude to drinking at grass roots level, Rogerson says.
This involves educating sports management, the people who work behind clubroom bars, supporters and sponsors.
“There’s no point saying binge drinking is bad and then giving under 16s a slab of beer when they’re best on the ground. That’s not something that sends a real clear message to parents or players.’’
The Good Sports programme involves accrediting clubs at different levels to become more responsible hosts.
The first stage may involve helping a club get a liquor licence and understanding basic healthy attitudes towards alcohol.
At higher levels, it involves helping clubs develop a safe transport strategy and making sure everyone who serves alcohol is trained in responsible service.
The programme also helps clubs secure funding from sources other than the alcohol industry.
“We’re not kidding ourselves,” Rogerson says.
“We know the drinking issue is hard for volunteer clubs, which is why we’re committed to supporting them deal with it.’’
A recent survey of the Good Sports programme showed it had cut the number of drinks people consumed at participating Australian rugby league and cricket clubs and lowered the percentage of players involved in risky drinking by at least 10 percent.
A concept similar to the Good Sports programme was introduced to New Zealand in 2006 by Sport Canterbury, and named Club Mark.
Lorraine McLeod is the Club Mark co-ordinator at Sport Canterbury.
She says the programme is based on the premise that, in order to be successful and healthy, a club needs to be well run.
Minimising harm from alcohol is one small part of the Club Mark programme.
At the most basic level, it might involve help getting the appropriate licence for a club with a fridge in the corner from which club management sell beer, McLeod says.
“We ask them to have food available, not to serve underage people and generally encourage them to obey liquor licensing laws.
“Most clubs want to be good clubs, but the liquor licence is like a driver’s licence. They might have got one a while ago, but, like most of us, might not necessarily pass if we were tested on it today.’’
Good Sports was picked up by ALAC and ACC in 2007 and trialled in different parts of New Zealand.
Andrew Galloway, ALAC’s Supply Control Project Manager, says the appeal of the Club Mark programme was helping clubs minimise harm from alcohol and become more family friendly.
Disappointingly, the Club Mark programme did not work as well as its sponsors had hoped, he says.
Many clubs found Club Mark came with too much paperwork and had too many health outcomes to achieve, such as being smokefree, sun-smart, trying to prevent injury and minimising harm from alcohol.
“We got a bit lost in New Zealand (with Club Mark compared to the Good Sports programme) because we made it too broad and with too many outcomes. It became a bit of a box ticking exercise rather than focusing on the positive things it was trying to achieve.’’
ACC and ALAC funding for the Club Mark programme was discontinued after its first year, but some clubs, such as ones in Canterbury and Nelson, still continue with it and get alternative funding.
Galloway says, despite Club Mark being stopped, there are a range of other things being done around New Zealand.
ALAC is working with public health officials and organisations such as councils and police to ensure there is no dangerous drinking when thousands of people flock to watch World Cup Rugby games at venues around the country in 2011.
“If there was a free-for-all with alcohol, these places with hundreds of people, some of them hanging out there all day, could turn very nasty,’’ Galloway says.
A national working group has been set up for managing alcohol rules during the Rugby World Cup so places set up for people to watch games will abide by the same rules.
On a smaller scale, some clubs and organisations around the country are adapting their own initiatives – like the Gisborne league approach – to minimise harm in the sporting world.
In Canterbury, a group of police officers has developed a programme using senior members of sports clubs.
Constable Kerry Lancaster is part of the region’s newly developed police Alcohol Strategy and Enforcement Team, as well as being a keen sportswoman.
She has played at high level competitions in squash, tennis and netball, and her brother, Stephen Lancaster, is a former Canterbury Crusader. Lancaster and her colleagues are developing a programme called Say Now, which should be implemented in sports clubs around Canterbury next winter.
Say Now involves training respected members of sports clubs to impart positive messages about alcohol to younger players.
“It might be old school club member Bluey, who says to players skulling beer, ‘Hey guys, pull your heads in’.’’
The mentors will attend seminars and listen to a range of people such as recovering alcoholics or Super 14 and champion netball players who have got into strife with alcohol.
Lancaster says the programme aims to work on an unconscious level.
“The older players are often respected mentors but they don’t realise it. What they do can have a really positive or negative impact on younger players.
“Every year in sports clubs, you have a new set of young people coming through, so hopefully we can make a difference to a lot of people.’’
She hopes the positive messages about drinking will be extended to include “not going home and bashing the missus’’ or getting into street brawls.
The Say Now team looked at a range of different programmes, including Club Mark, before deciding on its scheme.
“Club Mark is a huge undertaking for a club. They need to have a person full-time running it, and only a small part of it is related to alcohol.’’
The Say Now programme requires little financial investment and effort from clubs, as mentors are already part of the organisation, Lancaster says.
Although the programme has been set up by police, they will fade into the background once mentors are trained.
“We are enforcement. It’s not appropriate for us to be seen to be involved in it. We want people in the clubs to take healthy messages on board about alcohol, so, slowly but surely, the culture changes for the better.’’
- Kim Thomas is a Christchurch-based journalist.