Coach considers resigning if athletes aren't tested

Posted: Sunday, May 10, 2009

Editor's note: This is an extended version of the article that ran in the Sunday, May 10 edition of the Juneau Empire

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

In a stark appeal to the Juneau School Board on Tuesday night, Juneau-Douglas High School head football coach Bill Chalmers said he'd stop coaching if action weren't taken to make drug testing a requirement of participation in school sports and activities.

Chalmers has been teaching for nearly 50 years and is in his fifth year as head coach. He sat down Thursday to talk about what led to his ultimatum, what he hopes it will accomplish and share what he's gleaned about Juneau's drug culture.

What specifically do you want the School Board or administration to accomplish this summer?

I would like to have in place a mandatory drug testing of all students in athletic activities, and other activities in time to get the students an opportunity to get their lives straightened out prior to the start of school this fall.

So you think it would help straighten them out rather than drive them away?

That's my hope that it would do that. I've already told many of my football players that they better get themselves clean if they're not, because this stuff stays around in the system a long time. If they want to play football this fall, they're gonna have to be drug free.

It's not the performance enhancing stuff, it's the recreational stuff you're worried about?

Yeah, I'm worried about (oxycodone) and I'm worried about marijuana and I'm worried about crystal meth, heroin - which is cheaper than OC now.

How'd you learn that?

Students. Not users, cause they'd never admit that they're users, but they say on the street, it's cheaper to buy heroin than it is to buy OC.

Do you think the system in place now - watch a video and sign a drug free pledge - is ineffective?

Unfortunately, yes, it is ineffective. Everybody signs the pledge. And I'm not sure they pay much attention to the video or the pledge itself, because when they look around them, they see others using and playing, and saying, well, it really doesn't apply.

Why put coaching on the line?

(Chalmers takes a deep breath and lets it out in an uneasy laugh.)

The main reason is that I'm just not prepared to put up with that grief that drugs and athletics together causes the individuals, the teams, the coaches, the parents. It's just too painful.

And I guess the real reason I'm hoping that would motivate a few people to see how seriously I'm taking it. And if the kids'd take that seriously, then maybe they'll do something about it. If the board sees it seriously, maybe they'll do something about it.

What was your thought process?

Part of the thought process is that, whether we want to or not, if we don't have some kind of a control system in place, our very act of coaching is an enabling. That if we even suspected a kid is playing and using drugs, we should take him off the team. But of course, we can't legally do that unless we have some kind of proof, which right now is catching him putting the pill into his mouth or with a reefer in his hand. That's the only thing we can act on now.

(If) we can act on empirical medical evidence, we've got a better chance of letting kids know how serious we are and how serious the problem is.

The thing that bothers me most is that I really believe that a lot of kids don't think it's that serious, that big a deal. They think, eh, I'll do a little experimenting now and then when I need a job, I'll stop, and when I get married, I'll stop. When I have kids, I'll stop. But you and I both know, that's not true, that's not how it works. Some people can, but I've seen too many people who can't.

When you hear so-and-so may be using, it sounds like your hands are tied. Is there anything you do anyway?

I talk to the kids. When I hear about it, I say, "Look, this is the reports that I'm hearing. And I suspect they might be true, otherwise there wouldn't be any reason for them to be saying what they're saying. But you and I both know there's nothing I can legally do about it."

Is there a typical response?

The typical response is silence. We don't get a big, vociferous denial, which makes me suspect they don't have anything they can truthfully deny.

In your last five years of coaching, have you seen attitudes about drug use change?

Well, I don't know that they've changed in the last five years, I know that my awareness of them has changed in the last five years.

How'd you come into it, then?

Well, second and thirdhand information. But also some firsthand information. In retrospect, too late. Three of my football players from the past, two of whom were key individuals in our first championship in 2005 are serving jail time because of drug-related offenses. And the third is going to trial for a drug-related offense in a different state.

And that began while they were in high school?

Yes. I found out since that yes, they were using drugs while they were playing for me. And I guess that was a culminating fact that prompted me to do what I'm doing. I just, they - the information keeps coming back that we weren't doing these kids any favors.

Have you been speaking up since you started coaching or teaching?

It's hard for me to remember when I first started teaching, that was almost 50 years ago. And I guess the drug problem's been around, cause that was in the 60s. But what we did basically, was we put our heads in the sand. There wasn't any way we could prove our suspicions and so we just went ahead and taught those kids that showed up sober and straight, and pretty much ignored the problem, until I started coaching.

See, my belief's always been if you're dedicated to a sport, you will not abuse drugs, you will not abuse alcohol. You won't use anything during the season. In every other situation I've been in, if you're caught using anything - tobacco, alcohol, drugs - automatically, you're out of athletics for the entire rest of your career, because that's just the way the coaches I've worked with in the past dealt with it.

But now, modern times, we have a more lenient program, more lenient punishment. And even the new state (rules), you can use drugs right up until the first practice, and then stop, you're good, you're clean. That's how I read it, anyhow, that's how the kids are reading it. "It's not season, it's OK for me to use tobacco, it's OK for me to use alcohol, it's OK for me to use drugs. It's not during the season."

In your youth, did you have run-ins with underage drinking, smoking, or substance abuse?

In my youth? Oh ho ho. My youth was in a different age. I went to a private school, and one boy, he was a junior, and he would've been a starting halfback as a senior, but he was caught drinking and they called an all-school assembly and expelled him in front of the entire student body.


Yeah. It's different, wholly. My son, my oldest son, who's now 45 and a teacher in Minnesota, was a high school and a college football player. And I can remember his older sister chasing him around the house on Easter Sunday, trying to get him to take a sip of wine. And he refused to do so, he said, "Football players, basketball players, track stars do not drink. Ever." And that was the belief. I know that he never used in high school and I suspect he never used in college. But that was how many years ago? 27, 30 years ago? It was a totally different situation.

But it is the attitude that I'm carrying with me as a parent, as a grandparent, as a coach, is that there's only room in your mind for one of these two things. You either have room for 110 percent athletic activity, or you have room for abusing alcohol and drugs. You can't do both. That's how I feel and I know that to be a fact in my head.

Do you see it affecting their performance?

Oh, absolutely. ... It's as though the really good athletes have enough energy to play the games and use drugs. But they don't have enough energy to play the games, practice, and use the drugs. And so it really affects them at practice, and that way it really affects the team at practice because we only have a partial contribution. Typically, a kid that has a problem, whatever it might be, will take himself out of the drills at practice and just kind of stand, you know, "I've got a sore here, I've got a sore here." And not really get involved in the practices.

The second thing that happens is that the other kids on the team, who are better informed than any of the coaches, any of the adults, any of the parents about kids outside of football's activities, treat them differently. Respond to them differently. Almost as though they're on one level ostracized from the team. Although, if they're a good athlete, they're allowed to hang and do. But there's an attitude thing. You can smell it on the sidelines, sometimes.

You don't think they're tacitly OK with their teammates using?

I think some are. The kids I really respect, they treat them differently. I guess their expectations for them as a football player are lessened because they know that they're using.

What's the reaction been to Tuesday night?

Every contact that I've had - and I've had phone calls, and teachers stopping by, and notes in my mailbox - have all been positive, you know, saying this is long overdue.

I have not talked to my coaching staff about this. I have not talked to any of them. They're in charge of the weight training and conditioning drills by agreement in the off season, because when the head coach gets involved, then they're straddling some legalities. You can't coach outside the season, (but) it's OK to have the volunteers step in and help with the training. So I stay out of that. So I haven't had a chance to talk to them. And I don't know that it's really, you know, I don't expect any of them would disagree with what I've done. I think they'd all feel the same way.

How many kids are on the team?

Well, we've always had 70 on the JV and varsity combined. This (fall), because of the two schools both having football programs, we're looking at possibly having 50 JDHS football players. ...So we're working with about 50 kids right now in weight training and conditioning.

Have you heard from the players?

No. ... The only way that I've heard from any students on this - and they are aware that I gave the talk, and I haven't brought it up in class because I'm not sure of the ethics of that - but my daughter is a sophomore and she said they've discussed it in two of her classes. And she said it's pretty well split. Half think it's bad news to have any kind of drug testing and half of them think it's OK. Especially for activities, because that is a voluntary thing. That's what Caitlin said, too, if you're volunteering to go out for an athletic activity, then you need to follow some of the rules of the activity, additional rules.

Any idea where parents are on this?

The parents that I've heard from, I actually got a beautiful e-mail from a mother, saying, yes, it's about time we did this. She signed herself as the mother of a former football player who's now clean. And so, you know, I know that there are parents out there. I know the parents of some of the kids that I've had, that we've talked about their son's drug problem, because they've brought it up to me. And that we've actually worked on it, and cleared it up.

What would you do if you caught a player red-handed?

One of the players, red-handed? I'd try to get them into treatment. And try to get them clean in time to be eligible to play at the earliest convenience, if not this fall, next fall. That's my one driving motivation, is, I want to get the kids off of drugs. If it's in time for this football season that would be fine, if not, next season. And if it's not, you know, if they're seniors and this is their last chance, well that's a decision that they have to make. But I'd rather have them graduate clean and not have to pay the penalty somewhere down the road, where it's a lot more expensive.

And your daughter?

I'm trying to imagine a situation where she would use, and I can't imagine one. But, there would be, you know, I'm not averse to putting my daughter into treatment if she needs treatment. Certainly counseling immediately.

Do you think other parents are of that mindset but their kids are using? Or do parents know what their kids are up to?

I think there are several parents out there who have no idea what the level of drug use is with their kids and their kids' friends. Just some figures banging around my head, I would guess that half the parents would say, "Not my son," just like I say, "Not my daughter." And hopefully, half of them would be right. But I don't think more than half of them would be right.

And it's quite possible that the half that say, "Yeah, well I could see my son doing that," half of them might be wrong. The kids might be clean as the driven snow. "Might" is the word I want to get rid of. I want to be sure.

Any my daughter is the one that pointed this out to me, she said, well, if the kid is clean, why would they object? Wouldn't you want to play, wouldn't you want to be in a play, wouldn't you want to be on a band with kids who are straight rather than kids who are abusing? And of course I can't deny that I would.

I was thinking last night about, you know, football is probably not the worst sport to go out there less than 100 percent. Sure, sometimes you get hit really hard. But I can't image being a baseball player and having a 10 percent drop in my reflexes. That's fatal sometimes for a baseball player. If the ball's coming at you 100 miles per hour off one of those aluminum bats, and you're just not quite up to it today - and bingo.

You described some former players as "inhuman" the other night. How have you seen drugs change a kid?

I can think of one kid specifically that I would describe as a gentle giant, but not a very big giant, but he played like a giant. Never was very outgoing, never showed any anger on the football field. And the reason he ended up in trouble with the law was because he went off on a drug-related tantrum and tore a place apart.

He's still a young man now?

Oh yeah, he was 18 years old in '05. So he's 22.

What would you have expected him to do after high school?

Academics were not real easy for him. But I expected he would probably get a really good job as construction worker or, you know, get a apprenticeship as an electrician, something like that. He was mechanically adept.

He's in jail now?

Yeah, he is.

Learning about your players and former students, it sounds like it really wears on you.

It's probably the most negative aspect of coaching without a doubt. The long hours, no problem. The weather, no problem. I tell everybody that football is exactly twice as much fun as I ever thought it would be and twice as much work. But the work is not the reason that I would think about leaving it. The reason is this negative drag that affects the attitudes, it affects the attendance at practices, it affects the attitudes of the kids when they're at practice.

It's just, it's - I'd like to be able to drive a team to excellence rather than pull them to excellence, and I feel like I've got a rope over my shoulder and I'm just pulling and tugging, tug-of-war all the time.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail

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