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Steve Sarkisian Needs Help, And USC Did The Right Thing By Not Firing Him

Society often punishes people for mental health and substance abuse issues, but USC's decision to not terminate Steve Sarkisian shows there's a better way.

by Kevin Trahan
Oct 12 2015, 4:54pm

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Within a few hours of USC's announcement on Sunday that it was forcing football coach Steve Sarkisian into a leave of absence to get "healthy," the sport seemed ready to move on without him, at least judging by reactions on Twitter.

No way he survives this. Just postponing the inevitable. Should have fired him back in August.

For the second time in as many months, Sarkisian is in trouble due to alcohol. In August, it was a drunken tirade at a booster event, where he allegedly dropped an f-bomb and and said that Oregon, Arizona State and Notre Dame "all suck." Next came the stories: the $600 bar tab he put on Washington's dime, the drinking in the coaches' locker room during games.

Sarkisian vowed to get help and to stop drinking this season. He didn't.

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The situation now seems to have deteriorated. Following a loss to Washington, which dropped USC to a disappointing 3-2, Sarkisian reportedly showed up not sober to a special teams meeting, then went home and didn't return for practice. USC athletic director Pat Haden called him half an hour into practice and made the decision to place him on leave. More stories bubbled out about being Sarkisian being drunk at games and team functions. These stories are not confirmed, but they're troubling all the same.

But something both unpopular and very, very good happened in this whirlwind of bad. Given a gift-wrapped excuse to fire a struggling coach, and likely with the ability to do so with cause, Haden chose not to dismiss Sarkisian. This means Sarkisian can still get help and return to coach USC. I hope he does.

Steve Sarkisian (right) and Pat Haden. --Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I voiced that opinion on Twitter Sunday night, and it was not well-received. The most common criticism: Do you think Sarkisian could show up to any other job drunk and not be fired?

The answer, of course, is probably not. But should that be the answer? As a society, we would rather punish someone with a drinking problem than encourage them to get help. That's not right, and it's hardly a roadmap for how USC should handle Sarkisian.

Getting help is hard—damn hard. It's hard enough that most of us will attempt to push through, hurting ourselves even more, until we have no other choice.

Sarkisian very clearly needs help, and it's likely something he has known for a long time. On Monday, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy look at Sarkisian's alcohol use at Washington, where he previously coached. While some around the Huskies program said they never saw him drink in excess or in an inappropriate setting, the paper also reported that:

One ex-player said that in 2009, Sarkisian's first season with the Huskies, the coach sometimes arrived at morning team meetings "smelling like booze and [with] eyes all red, like he's been on a bender."

Another former player said he smelled alcohol on Sarkisian during team meetings on "one or two" occasions and, other times, noted that the coach's eyes appeared to be bloodshot and glazed while he seemed unusually confrontational.

Two other former players said Sarkisian and other coaches regularly consumed alcohol in offices—one said the coach typically kept an 18-pack of Coors Light stashed near his desk—and that he appeared uncharacteristically loud and unsteady on some team flights.

Many observers have said that Haden should have known that Sarkisian needed help as well, especially after the incident in August. Perhaps he did. Thing is, it's one thing to know, and quite another to act. Mental and emotional health problemsincluding substance abuseare something people tend to not to address unless and until they have no other choice. Sometimes this is called "rock bottom." By any name, it's a moment of crisis.

Getting help isn't easy. — Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sarkisian initially said that he mixed alcohol with meds—what meds, we don't know—and he has just undergone a divorce that, since he is a human, likely took a major toll on him. Maybe he's using alcohol to cope, maybe it's more. We don't know. We know Sarkisian needs help, and that maybe he finally knows that, too.

We also know that getting help still will be really damn hard.

I needed a different kind of help than Sarkisian, or at least, than the kind that we're seeing in the media. I have depression and anxiety, or at least some mix of the two that I don't entirely understand myself because, well, talking about it is hard.

After things got really bad, it was six months before I told my girlfriend and my family. I promised them I would get help. I didn't. I said I would get medication. I stopped taking it. I thought I could push through. I couldn't.

Things got worse and I actually went to get help. I was embarrassed and convinced it wouldn't work—I'm Midwestern tough, and I can push through, right? I don't need a damn therapist. I stopped going and stopped taking my medication again. And things got worse again. I went to get help, but I didn't talk about my biggest issues. Then I hit rock bottom. I got help and I'm better than I've been in a long time. And by some miracle I didn't lose everything.

I'm not telling this story because I think I'm like Steve Sarkisian. Frankly, I don't know what he's going through, and there are different battles with alcoholism and depression, just as there are different battles between alcoholism and a combination of alcoholism and depression. I don't know Sarkisian's full situation. I'm telling this story, for the first time, because I don't know when I will be able to again. Because I'm still embarrassed by it, even though I know I shouldn't be. Because deciding to get help is really, really damn hard, and we should reward those who do it, even if not on the schedule we all expect.

That's the thing about getting help. We know that it should be the obvious thing to do when we need it. We fault Sarkisian for not doing this earlier, but we also tell him everything he did before should get him fired. That's a terrible mixed message, and to put it nicely, it's profoundly unhelpful.

Steve Sarkisian with his children. --Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The reward for getting help, be it for alcoholism or mental health, is that maybe you'll get another chance down the road. That you need to pay your debt now and hope this makes you a success later. But to someone who needs help, blind hope screams embarrassment and failure. The worst possible scenarios go through your head, so you try to tough it out alone, on the job, desperately attempting to keep things together even though you know you can't.

Getting help should not be embarrassing, but it is. It should lead to a happier tomorrowbut when admitting you have a problem can cause you to you lose your livelihood, or be roundly criticized, it doesn't. It just makes you angrier, digging deeper into whatever it is that ails you.

Sarkisian could be fired because of his deeds, yes. If Sarkisian was indeed drunk on the sidelines against Arizona State, that is a fireable offense. If the goal is to build a case for his firing, we can find plenty of supporting evidence.

But if the goal is rehabilitation, both for Sarkisian himself and as an example for others, USC shouldn't dismiss him. The public doesn't need to hear every untold Sark drinking story. The more counts we add to the case, the more we push hurting people into dark corners—the more we confirm their deep fear that truly delving into their problems and putting themselves through the initial embarrassment of getting it all out there just isn't worth it.

The anguish of getting help and hitting rock bottom is punishment enough. If Sarkisian does keep his job through all of this, he will enjoy a luxury few others do. That's a good thing, because if USC shows the world that getting help doesn't need to come with termination, then maybe we can inch closer to a place where pushing through problems until hitting rock bottom isn't a default, and where denial isn't socially incentivized.

Getting help is damn hard, man. Good on USC for not making it any harder—for Sarkisian or anyone else.

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