drunk driving

Monday, April 22, 2013

There is a tradeoff that occurs when an athlete crosses the line from amateur to professional. It isn’t reflected in the amount of dollars earned for performance on the field; rather it is the privacy lost that comes with the life of a celebrity. Regardless of Charles Barkley’s admonition that he was not a role model to his fans, the athlete is held in high esteem. The strength of character that pushes the athlete to excel causes fans to expect integrity, good judgment and ethical behavior. Unfortunately this week’s poster boy for bad behavior also put too many people at risk. Milwaukee Brewer’s pitcher, Yovani Gallardo, was arrested for drunk driving, blowing 0.22% on the breathalyzer, which is just a little higher than his .208 lifetime batting average.

When he pitched the next day, there was more than a little outrage in the press that Major League Baseball should have been more aggressive in punishing Mr. Gallardo for his off field transgressions. But think of what would happen to the non-celebrity. In Wisconsin, where the first DUI is still a misdemeanor, fines and assessments can cost close to $800 but there is no jail time and unless an employer reads the police blotter, it is likely the employee can hide his crime. In sports, there is no place to hide and the question returns to the mantra of Mr. Barkley regarding the status of role model.

Unfortunately, the public safety has little to do with celebrity and ordinary folk, but rather the risk to innocent bystanders on the road. Those who drink and drive put themselves and others at risk, to the tune of 10,000 deaths each year in the United States and the hundreds of thousands of others injured. This is a public epidemic that crosses age, sex, ethnical heritage and profession. 1.4 million DUI arrests for alcohol and narcotic use are made every yea. That number, if it were a virus like bird flu or SARS, would cripple the ability of the health care system to cope. And yet, every day, thousands of people, ball players and spectators alike, decide to put themselves behind the wheel of a car with impaired judgment and decreased reaction times. They tax police officers, district attorneys and the court system. Fines and the threat of license suspension do not seem to act as a deterrent. People continue to believe that they can handle their drink.

Alcohol is a depressant that acts almost immediately to slow the brain’s reaction time and impair muscle coordination. The effects on brain function are almost immediately and can be seen after the first drink. Incoordination can be measured at 0.04% and reaction times can double at a BAC level of 0.08%. The number isn’t as important as the impairment. As with any other addictive drug, tolerance can develop. A chronic alcoholic can appear in control with BAC levels that would render a novice unconscious, but that tolerance does not translate to better response and reaction times when driving drunk.

Back to the diamond and Mr. Gallardo. In his pitcher’s role, he and his coaches plan each day at the park; the warmup, how many pitches to throw, how far to run, how long to stretch. Supposedly, for the athlete, the body is a temple to be treated with the greatest of care. After the game, though, it seems that Mr. Gallardo’s temple has been ransacked. When a person decides to go out for a drink, it is their responsibility to know how much they have consumed and what their blood alcohol level is, as a surrogate for measuring their reaction times and safety behind the wheel.

In baseball, numbers fuel fantasy leagues, but in the real world BAC numbers equate to mortality rates. As with any employer, it should not be Major League baseball decision whether Mr. Gallardo plays ball after his DUI arrest and presumptive conviction. Instead, it should be the fans who decide that they won’t pay to watch him pitch. Mr. Gallardo’s actions do not represent the majority of professional athletes, but he can be held up as role model of what not to do. Don’t be like Yovani.


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