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Stiff rules statewide on off-season drinking

By Joyce Kelly/Daily News staff GHS Wed Jul 25, 2007, 12:45 AM EDT

A 17-year-old quarterback's springtime keg party or a first baseman's tobacco habit in October will mean fewer games come fall and spring for both athletes starting in September.

A new Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association regulation mandates student athletes caught drinking alcohol, using drugs, smoking or chewing tobacco during the off-season will lose eligibility the next time they play a sport.

"If you're playing a winter sport in December and you get caught drinking in October, the penalty will be imposed when you get on a team," said MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel.

Under the old rules, a baseball player caught drinking in the fall would not face penalties in the spring, Wetzel said. The impetus behind the stiffer rule was born of worries raised by school administrators at the athletic association's annual meeting in April, he said.

"We found administrators are more concerned than they've ever been with alcohol in the high schools. In town after town, you hear about 50, 60, 70 kids having a party. ... and the driving accidents," Wetzel said.

Local coaches and school officials expressed support for the new regulation.

"I don't agree with drinking in season or out of season. Kids are kids and they make mistakes and I do think we need to cut them some slack, but at the same time we need to hold them to a higher precedent," said Kristen Hedrick, who coaches Holliston's girls varsity basketball team and varsity softball in Millis.

Brad Sidwell, Franklin's athletic director and football coach, said the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association regulation "would be hard to argue against."

"I think amongst all teenagers it's an issue, no matter where you are. It's always something you worry about as a coach, a teacher or parent," he said.

Franklin schools have had a similar policy in effect for a few years, and students know from the consequences of violating chemical rules beginning with the first day of practice, he said.

"You don't want a kid to go out off-season and feel like, 'Wow, now I can go out and do this,' " Sidwell said. "Every AD will tell you - it's probably gonna happen to them at some point in the year," Sidwell said.

Framingham implemented a stricter chemical policy last year, but the new MIAA regulation will affect student athletes, said Framingham Athletic Director and football coach Gary Doherty.

Framingham student athletes are accountable 365 days a year under school rules, but if they are caught drinking or using drugs off-season, they have an opportunity to "work off" the suspension, Doherty said.

A student might meet with a school wellness professional, follow his or her recommendations, and still play a full season, he said.

"I could potentially work off my suspension before the season even begins. The idea is a great one ... because it has an educational component," Doherty said.

In Framingham, athletes will now be permitted to work off only summertime violations, he said.

A handful of student athletes were caught drinking or using drugs during off-seasons last school year, Doherty said. "As a coach, yeah, it's definitely difficult, but student-athletes need to learn," said Doherty.

In Natick, student-athletes already face regulations "exactly like the new MIAA rule," according to football coach Tom Lamb.

"I support it, absolutely. Any rule trying to discourage students from drug and alcohol use - I don't see how you can say that's a bad thing," Lamb said.

Every high school has a number of cases every year, he said.

"The question is - how many kids has it kept from using if it weren't in place? Who knows? You'd like to think it has some effect," Lamb said. The new penalties are cumulative and will be served at the earliest possible time, he said.

An athlete caught drinking in the fall who only has two games left to play, but is supposed to miss four will still "owe" two games, according to Wetzel. "In other words, you've got an account going for yourself now," he said.

The summer is the MIAA's only "off" season, during which time it ceases to regulate chemical violations, Wetzel said.

MIAA officials encourage athletes found in violation to continue practice, however, because they "don't want them out there with nothing to do," Wetzel said.

"There won't be any resistance to this - not from a school official. We get it from the parents," said Wetzel.

"Parents are much more concerned about what goes on a transcript than they are about a kid drinking," Wetzel said.

(Joyce Kelly can be reached at 508-626-4423 or jkelly@cnc.com.)

SIDEBAR ON PENALTIES:

Under MIAA's new regulation, the first violation results in a student athlete's suspension from 25 percent of all competitions; the second violation, 60 percent of all games; a third offense, an approved dependency or treatment program like Alcoholics Anonymous, said MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel.

"When you get up the third violation, you're pretty much - it's almost a moot point - you've got a kid with a serious problem and he isn't gonna get onto a team," Wetzel said.

For seasons that are not divisible by quarters, such as a 10-game football season, the number of ineligible games gets rounded down (so 25 percent of 10 games means the loss of two games), he said.

Harsher school rules and penalties prevail over MIAA regulations, Wetzel pointed out.

School principals act as the MIAA representatives and conduct investigations into suspected violations, Wetzel said.

"Our new rule does not call for guilt by association - there won't be penalties for kids present but not using," he said.