In Swampscott this month, two hockey players showed up drunk at a dance and were ruled ineligible for the squad’s state championship game that was scheduled two days later. In February, a star basketball player at Wareham High School lost his spot on the team after police found more than a pound of marijuana in his car. And in January, several Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School athletes missed games after they were caught — along with dozens of other students — at a beer bash.
These stories represent just a fraction of the times in recent years in which area athletes were caught using alcohol or drugs. In November, more than a dozen from Arlington High School were suspended after attending a party hosted by a former town selectwoman; in 2011, 11 Melrose High School athletes were suspended after photos posted on Facebook showed them drinking or smoking tobacco.
The incidents violate policies implemented by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and area high schools. Despite these rules, which call for suspension and even banishment from teams for multiple violations, educators and coaches say there is no amount of deterrence that will stop some student-athletes from drinking and using drugs.
“I am as perplexed as anyone,” said Swampscott Superintendent Lynne Celli after Swampscott High hockey players Trevor Massey and Ryan Cresta were banned from playing in a state championship game.
As part of its overall policy, the MIAA calls for a parent or guardian of an athlete to attend a school meeting before a team begins its season in order to review school policies, including its drug and alcohol regulations. Schools also adhere to the MIAA’s handbook on drug and alcohol violations, and in some cases the schools’ rules are even stricter than the MIAA’s policies.
Students caught violating MIAA rules are suspended from playing 25 percent of the season; a second violation calls for 60 percent ineligibility; a third violation requires a student to enroll in a chemical dependency program in order to be reinstated to play sports.
In recent years, Swampscott and other area school districts have included drug and alcohol education in their health curriculum. These days, speakers such as former Boston Celtic Chris Herren regularly meet with high school athletes to discuss the perils and long-term consequences of substance abuse.
In addition, the MIAA holds a captains workshop every summer for student athletes.
“We try to impress upon them that the ramifications are going to be different than a student who isn’t on the team. If enough of them get caught, their team isn’t going to be good,” said MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel, who added that his organization leaves the enforcement of the policy to principals in districts that belong to the MIAA. Wetzel said the MIAA does not track drug and alcohol violations.
Herren, the former Durfee High School and Boston College star, spent much of his career addicted to drugs like oxycodone. Now, he lectures about the pressures of sports and the dangers of drugs at high schools and to college and professional players.
Herren said he believes a high school athlete’s decision to use alcohol or drugs is a complicated one that can involve family history, peer pressure, or just the desire to escape. He also said advertising and social media — where kids are subject to daily images of marijuana and alcohol — create a societal permissiveness about their use.
This perception, combined with the process of maturing and the feeling of being invincible, can lead teen athletes to drugs or alcohol.
“A lot of it boils down to social pressure and self-esteem,” Herren said.
Kevin Brogioli, boys’ basketball coach at Wareham High School, said adults sometimes expect teens to be perfect.
“Part of the nature of being a kid is that you do make mistakes,” said Brogioli, who coached Wareham’s Jeff Houde until Houde’s arrest last month on a marijuana possession charge.
Brogioli, who is also a middle school principal in Mattapoisett, warns his students and athletes about the health dangers of drugs. He also reminds them that their brains do not fully form until their early 20s.
He said implementing stricter drug and alcohol rules would not eliminate student use.
“I think it’s very easy to have zero-tolerance policies, but they’re not very effective,” said Brogioli, who endorses the MIAA’s drug and alcohol policy. “It’s a mixture of patience, and there’s a little fear factor involved with being stern.”
Nancy O’Neil, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School’s athletic director, called late January a “challenging” time, following the suspension of several athletes who had attended a party where alcohol was served.
“It’s never going to be perfect,” said O’Neil, when asked about teens and decision-making during high school.
O’Neil said some student behavior can be traced to their friends and groups they are linked with.
“There’s nothing a kid wants more in a high school than to belong to something,” she said. “So if the group that they belong to is participating in unhealthy choices, and they’re exposed to that on a regular basis, they could start to use.”
O’Neil said the process of educating student-athletes has come a long way from informal talks decades ago to incorporating curriculum and including parents, teachers, and coaches in the process. She said athletes take part in role-playing to learn ways to cope with peer pressure to drink and use drugs. She also stresses how indulging can hurt an athlete’s performance.
“One drunk incident can wipe out 14 days of training,” she said.
Dr. Frederick Neff, who has worked as a sports psychologist for the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, said an important lesson that parents and educators can teach student-athletes is that certain behaviors have consequences.
“There’s a lot of behavior that’s overlooked,” he said. “Kids need to understand that when they do certain things, there needs to be a consequence so they can learn what they can and can’t do, and the price that will happen if they do it.”