The Morning after the Night before: is it suddenly OK to come to work drunk?

There has been much reporting today of the antics of some of Australia’s morning show hosts in the aftermath of the Logies (Australia’s TV awards). Of course for particular reporting has been the conduct of Channel 9’s Karl Stefanovic who has made a habit of appearing on his show, Today, in the aftermath of this awards show either drunk or severely hungover.

For those who missed it, Stefanovic again showed up for work this morning severely hungover (at best) and left with 20 minutes before his show ended. Two other hosts on the Today show, Messrs Fordham and Jacobs were missing at the start of the show but made it later on and stayed to the end.

I ask you readers: if you turned up to your place of work either drunk or hungover, late and then left early do you think you would have a job (or at least receive a warning) the following day? Or do you think you would be lauded as “great bloke” / “larrikin” just entitled to have a good time?

Did I miss a memo? How is OK for a role model, which Stefanovic is, to continue to turn up to his show in an unfit state and not be punished for it? Or worse for us to not even question the wisdom of such conduct?

In professional sports we have seen players, in Australia, stood down for turning up drunk to games (Andrew Symonds), had their contracts torn up because they preferred to drink rather than turn up to a recovery session (Josh Dugan) and, generally, be heavily scrutinised for their habits when it comes to alcohol.

I concede that I do not drink alcohol: I am an alcoholic. That said I am no puritan and, indeed, I am all for people having a good time. Further, I am a massive advocate for those in the public eye both having a life outside of work and enjoying that life.

Stefanovic and pals getting on the tins at an awards dinner is not the issue; rather, I applaud the fact that these guys who work very hard getting the chance to let their hair down. What I am bothered by is the message that it sends when these guys then go to work drunk / hungover or just don’t turn up. I am even more bothered by the fact that as a society we seem to laud and reward a guy who does that.

For goodness sake: if you are going to get on the tins so hard that you know you are not going to be able to perform at a level that equates to your normal work standard TAKE A ANNUAL LEAVE DAY. It is not that hard is it?

And as society surely the time has come for this sort of conduct to be outed for what it is: entirely unacceptable! Your or my boss would haul us over the coals, as a minimum, if we acted in this way and as a society we have to recognise that it is not behaviour to be lauded. It seems that we have already made this step when it comes to our sports stars, it leaves one to wonder why our television presenters ought be any different.

Violence and Alcohol: Are increased sentences the answer?

I have been reading about the new legislation proposed by Barry O’Farrell, the New South Wales Premier, in an effort to combat the presently alleged “epidemic” of alcohol fuelled violence sweeping through Sydney and its suburbs.  Let me start with this: my thoughts and prayers go out to those who have lost loved ones as a result of current “epidemic”.  Equally, those same thoughts and prayers go out to anyone who has lost a loved one to a violent act. There can be no excuse for unprovoked or excessive violence.

The focus on alcohol fuelled violence of late and the legislative enhancements that have been proposed to sentences for crimes arising whilst under the influence has bothered me because the focus, in my view, on the alcohol element seems to miss the point that any violence, unprovoked, excessive or otherwise, is, or ought be considered to be, abhorrent.  I am bothered by the perception that seems to arise that there are different levels of criminality there arises from an assault depending on whether one is under the influence of alcohol or not.

This is a chicken and egg scenario isn’t it? On the one hand it is suggested, or appears to be suggested, that by reducing the opportunities of some to drink will thereby reduce violence.  On the other hand the perception that arises from the legislation and the press would appear to be that only drunk people commit acts of unprovoked or excessive violence.

The latter statement must fundamentally be incorrect: simply put once does not need to be exclusively drunk (or otherwise under the influence) to act in a violent way.  I guess what I am saying is that violence is not the exclusive province of those who are drunk.

The former statement, again, is flawed.  For a start, some of the recent incidents of alcohol fuelled violence have occurred between 9pm and midnight being a time at which the proposed new lock out laws would have had the possibility of reducing the level of imbibement of alcohol of the individuals acting in a violent way.  Further, am I alone in thinking that locking people out of premises is counter intuitive to protecting the public from violent acts? A lock out after a certain period only adds to the number of people, intoxicated, walking around trying to find transportation home.  Surely then a lock out increases the risks of an incident happening.

Maybe I am being too simplistic here but to me increasing the sentences available for alcohol induced violence whilst increasing the opportunities for said violence to occur completely misses the point.  Stopping the violence surely must be the best means of stopping alcohol fuelled violence not the other way around.  Afterall, how many drunks are going to stop themselves from acting in a violent way whilst drunk because they fear incarceration? Dealing with the violence and not the alcohol element of the violence must be the better way.

For me it comes back to something that I tweeted a while ago: regardless of the sentences available the prosecution of offenders and the sentencing of same to custodial sentences for all types of assaults is a great place to start deterring likely future offenders.  The perception that offenders are going to get away with acting in a violent way seems to have been begat by the phalanx of good behaviour bonds and suspended sentences we have seen in the past.

In addition, we, as a society, must get back to condemning violence of any kind for being exactly what it is: an abhorrent act of cowardice rather than celebrating same.   This is everyone’s responsibility and traverses education of kids and young adults, the punishment of those who commit violent acts and, frankly, the shaming of repeat offenders rather than their celebration.

I repeat what I said in the preamble: my thoughts and prayers go out to anyone who has lost a loved one to a violent act.  This post is not in any way designed to denigrate their collective memories.  I just do not think that what appears to be the current suggested “answer” (blaming alcohol) honours those memories and a broader approach needs to be taken to tackling the problem of violence of all types.

I don’t drink: why is that so hard for some people?

I had an interesting experience yesterday afternoon, one which I will concede does not happen often, but one which has given me a moment of pause and more than a little irritation.

For new readers some background: I do not drink alcohol. I do not drink alcohol because I have a problem with alcohol. Aside from one slip nearly 2 years ago I have been sober for 28 months. I used to have a 2 drink “limit” but that imposition did not work so I gave up all together.

Now that background set onto the cause my irritation. Yesterday afternoon I caught up with some friends at a river side bar in beautiful Brisbane for a couple of afternoon beverages and a chat. A mate had been going through a rough time and wanted to catch up with everyone. As is my norm I got the first shout and ordered a large soda water. Back at the table a member of our group I had met for the first time only 10 minutes before posed the usual question I get at that point in proceedings: “Why are you on the waters mate?”. I have chosen an honesty is the best policy approach in the face of that question and replied: “Because I don’t drink”.

90% of people leave it, happily, at that but not my new “friend” who followed up with “Really, that seems strange, you don’t drink at all? Why not?” with a quizzical, almost shocked, expression on his face. Again, following my honesty policy, I answered “No I do not drink at all … I have a problem with alcohol.” Maybe I am wrong here but that really should have been the end of the discussion shouldn’t it? Unfortunately it was not and my new “friend” kept coming back to the topic to express his incredulousness at being in the presence of a mid thirties male who did not deign to drink alcohol. In the end even saying, as I did, “Most people leave it alone after I tell them I have a problem” did not lead to relief from the ongoing enquiry about the reasons why I don’t drink.

Now I concede that yesterday’s experience was a rarity for me. In about 90% of functions like the one I attended yesterday afternoon there is no issue at all from anyone about me deciding not to drink. That said, it really got me thinking: why is there such a stigma, in some quarters, against those who chose not to drink alcohol? I mean I choose not smoke cigarettes yet I do not get quizzed about that choice by my friends who smoke. Equally I have never taken drugs in my life but I have never been eviscerated by my friends who I know to have partaken in the odd pharmaceutical from time to time.

Has drinking alcohol become such the societal norm that those who decide not to drink in social settings deserve to become the focus of derision from those who do drink? That might sound like I am overreacting but that is how I felt yesterday when my personal choice became the one part of who I am that one person could not countenance. Maybe the new “friend” from yesterday would have preferred to have met the old me: drunken, forgetful, shout the bar me who would not have remembered anything about yesterday afternoon / last night this morning and who would have spent all day today worrying what I had said to whom? I am sure he would have liked that bloke better.

Here’s the rub of all of this for me: I do not push my not drinking alcohol on anyone I am with when I go out, indeed I go out of my way to have the first shout and stay in a shout despite drinking water, so why is it OK for others to push their drinking agenda on me? Maybe it is time to reassess my whole strategy around going out with people I do not know, either at all or well, because the way I was made to feel yesterday took me back to the dark days when I was tall, skinny, pimply faced kid standing on my own at school dances being laughed at and feeling awkward and I do not like that feeling!

Maybe there is a deal I can strike with the drinkers of the world: I won’t ask you not to drink around me and you don’t ask me to drink and we will live happily ever after. What do you think? Is that a goer or am I just dreaming? The more I think about it maybe I am just dreaming and that is pretty sad isn’t it?

The alcohol conundrum: to ask or not ask

In the aftermath of World Mental Health Day and, a little longer ago, the RUOK campaign I have had a fairly consistent thought flowing through my brain: what other questions do I wish people had asked me sooner?

There is one such question in my own life that sticks out like a sore thumb: “do you have a problem with alcohol?”  As those of you are close to me (and I admit some of you who are not) will know the answer to that question is a resounding “YES”.  With that in mind I have been considering whether the focus that is now being put on mental health with campaigns like RUOK? day needs to be broadened to consider other societal problems and also whether dealing with issues with alcohol in a similar vein is one step to far for us as a society at present.

Now before you, as readers, start rolling your eyes and wondering “does this bloke ever get off the pulpit?” please do me the indulgence of reading on just a little longer before you click away from this blog.  I am not writing this blog to ask you to stop drinking or to make myself out to be martyr or with some new found evangelical fervour.  I write as someone who knows from first hand experience how difficult it is in our society to admit you have a problem and to deal with it and I would like to start a conversation with you, as a reader, about what we can do to help our loved ones, friends and colleagues with making such an admission.

Before we get back to considering the conundrum expressed in the title to this blog, it is important to understand what I mean by the phrase “having a problem with alcohol”.  I can only express what I know from personal experience and, whilst I am not proud of any of what follows and this pains me to write, I don’t think I can ask you to be honest with yourselves if I am not honest with you.  So here is my experience and problem with alcohol:

  • When I drank there was never enough alcohol in a bar to sate me: I would drink everything.
  • When I drank, if I stopped at 3 beers I would be ok: if I had a 4th drink again there was never enough alcohol to sate me.
  • When I drank, I drank quickly and often alone: even when I was with other people I would find myself buying rounds for only me because my drinking buddies were too slow.
  • When I drank, I paid for everyone.
  • When I drank, the next day I remembered nothing.
  • When I drank, I was doing it to numb the self doubt that crippled me and to have one moment of paused before the black dog started barking again.

Now whether the foregoing conduct make me an alcoholic I don’t know.  People who are helping with the journey I am on are divided and I am, in all honestly, not bothered whether that label fits or it does not.  What is clear is that I had a problem; and more to the point I had a problem that was costing me money, friends and reputation.

The problem with the “alcohol problem” seems to me in part that some of the conduct that befell me on occasion is conduct that many consider to be normal.  Indeed, if one were to look around any bar on a Friday night they would see numerous people in the various states I outlined above.  The fact is that we, as a society, are much more accepting of behaviour like the foregoing than we are of people who admit they have a problem and stop.  I know from experience that the fact that I could imbibe at a rapid and exhaustive rate and bought drinks for everyone was conduct that was lionised rather than shamed.  The badge of “good drinker” is one met with acclamation rather than negativity.

Therein lies the conundrum that rests at the beginning of this blog: in a society where being a “good drinker” is a badge of honour and where not drinking is met with, and I quote from a party I was at Friday night “would you like another glass of milk Nancy” is it just as courageous to ask a loved one, friend or colleague if they have a problem as it is for that person to admit to it?

Much like the RUOK? day message it strikes me that being prepared to ask a loved one, friend or colleague whether they have a problem with alcohol comes with it the responsibility of continuing to ask in the face of being rebuffed.  As I alluded to on twitter (@shumpty77) during the RUOK? program it is not enough to just ask once.  Much like with my depression and anxiety, I have no doubt that if I had have been asked the question about alcohol I would have declined to answer and probably would have declined to answer quite angrily.  Such a response and the ability to of those suffer to mask their pain or conduct means that the person making the enquiry needs to keep asking until they are satisfied that the response received is not simply a mask to put them off from the real underlying issue.

To me: there is no real conundrum as I noted at the start of this blog. My personal view is that we all owe it to each other to look after each other that means asking the question.  Unfortunately, whilst the quantum one imbibes is met with a badge of honour, I am not sure that society thinks the same thing. I, for one, hope that attitude changes sooner rather than later.

Postscript: I should point out here that I make no criticism of my family, friends and colleagues who tried to assist me during the darkest periods of my life.  The love and support I have received has nothing short of brilliant.  In living the way I was living for a long time I became an expert in hiding from everyone what I was going through and even when they did try to help me I was dismissive at best and abusive at worst.  

One punch can kill: Will we ever learn?

Yet again the airwaves and newspapers are dominated with stories of pub fights, king hits and tragic loss.  The loss suffered by the victims of such violence is incomprehensible to me: I have not in my life experienced such violence albeit I have felt the pain that a sudden loss of life does cause with the loss of the my grandfather Allan.   Equally as incomprehensible to me is what makes one think it is alright to king hit someone.

Let’s be clear here: I do not know the facts of either case that are presently in the media. I suspect that both such cases will be played out for some time to come in both the Courts and the media.  It is also important to be clear that I write this blog from the perspective of someone who no longer drinks but until 16 months ago drank to excess regularly and who has often found himself in situations in pubs or clubs where an undercurrent of violence, actual or threatened, has been obvious. 

Whilst it may seem both glib and harsh I think it is important to separate two “one punch” scenarios here:

  1. The “king hit”: this is where an innocent bystander is struck by another person unprovoked or with limited provocation often without the victim knowing their assailant or even why they have been hit; and
  2. The “pub fight”: this is where the combatants have squared off, often in an inebriated state, verbally and then physically and a punch has been thrown.

I have separated these scenarios not because I think the outcome of them have any less effect on the victim or the victim’s family nor because I think in one case a party is blameless whilst in the other blame can be apportioned but because I wonder if there is more that can be done to try to lessen the likelihood of the second scenario.

The first scenario is simply abhorrent and totally inexplicable.  If caught, the perpetrator of the king hit, in any outcome scenario, ought be sent to prison for a long time. There can be no cogent excuse for wantonly hitting someone without warning in any scenario: alcohol or drug fueled or not.  Equally, as a society it seems to me that there is little that can be done to stop such conduct occurring.  I know of no magic formula or education program that is going to stop the perpetrator of such conduct.  Put differently: if the perpetrator is evil enough or mad enough to conduct himself in such a fashion, I don’t know how we stop it.

The second scenario is one that I have been tossing around in my head for some time, in part because I feel lucky that in the 18 years I have attended public drinking establishments in various states of inebriation I have been fortunate to have not been involved in a physical altercation save for breaking up fights on occasion.  When I have thought about it I have always considered that bar fights are just part of life and have explained them away as simply what happens when men get drunk.  That is simply not a good enough response however for the families of those lost to such one punch violence.

A number of solutions have rolled around my mind in the vain hope of coming up with something, indeed anything, that might lower the incidences of alcohol fuelled violence and ultimately deaths and none of them are entirely sustainable or possible.  Prohibition did not work in the United States in the 1920s: if anything there was more violence rather than less.  Curfews and mandatory closing times have led to groups of people roaming the streets in the early hours drunk and seemingly, on occasion, looking for trouble.  Education programs do not seem to work.

The only solution I came up with that might have some possibility of success was making the penalties for the various categories of assault (right through to murder) that might arise harsher.  Additionally, it seemed to me that removing the dual defences of provocation and diminished capacity (on account of being inebriated) might also act as a further deterrent.  I for one do not believe that being a drunken lout should entitle an offender to a lesser sentence or the reduction of a charge from murder to manslaughter.  Harsher penalties may well have a deterrent effect but whether two inebriated individuals in the midst of a verbal confrontation are going to think about the consequences of throwing a punch in the heat of the moment is something that I think is highly questionable in theory.

So where does that leave us? Previously in this blog I have gotten up on the pulpit to preach the virtues of individuals taking personal responsibility for their conduct and living their lives in a fashion that corresponds with their values.  Again, it seems to me that a solution to the problem of alcoholic fuelled violence lies in the hands of the individuals themselves.  Each individual needs to consider, or at least be given the tools to consider, the option of walking from a confrontation and ACTUALLY walking away.   

I question though whether the values that I believe society ascribes to (being that it is better to walk away from a fight than to partake in one) are actually the values that a significant portion of the population of those most likely (being males between the ages of 15 and 40) ascribe to.  Only yesterday, I saw first hand an example of individual who ascribed to the antithesis of those values.  I was mortified to overhear the conversation of a young man (he would have been no more than 20) on the train yesterday evening that can be summarised as follows:

  1. He was just out of jail having been sentenced to a short stint on an assault charge arising from a fight in a pub car park.
  2. He had been to the Broncos v Warriors game on the preceding Friday night and had “belted” a patron sitting behind him because he thought he had heard him say something sarcastic about his girlfriend.
  3. His mother, who was sitting next to him, was proud of him.
  4. He was going out that night with the mates he was conversing with and was wistfully hoping that they would find someone to “fuck up”.

So this guy, if what he said was to be believed, has already been to jail on an assault charge, got into a fight in the week he got out of jail and was looking for another fight.  AND his mother was proud of him.

Whilst I would love to believe that this young man is the exception rather than the rule, and I really hope that he is, whether he is in the minority or not, whilst there are individuals whose values approve of randomly violent conduct incidences of such conduct will not stop and that leaves me to lamentably answer the question posed in the title to this blog in the resounding negative.

What to do with players accused of criminal conduct: to play or not play … is that the question?

Jesse Stringer’s assault charge and subsequent suspension from all Senior AFL activities for the remainder of the year has pushed the Australian Rugby Union’s decision to select Kurtley Beale for this weekend’s test match against Wales to the forefront of the minds of most sports followers this week.

The conundrum of allowing a player of any code accused, but not convicted, of a crime to play at the highest level of their code is not a new one albeit it is one that in the digital age in which we live more focus than ever before is placed on.

This is not a problem that is going to go away: simply put the sportstars of today are becoming younger and, whilst all conduct can not be talked away as juvenile hijinks or just “boys being boys”, young men (and women) are the demographic most likely to end up in some form of trouble with the law when alcohol is involved. 

In recent times we have seen a variety of approaches from clubs and the administrators of those clubs to allegations of inappropriate conduct.   Variously across the codes and in no particular order, some examples are:

  • Neville Costigan being dismissed by the Brisbane Broncos after he was charged with drink driving (but before he was convicted).
  • Todd Carney having his contract terminated and being deregistered from the NRL (by the Canberra Raiders) for urinating on a patron at a Canberra nightclub amidst allegations of drunk and reckless driving (among other things).
  • St Kilda player Andrew Lovett having his contract terminated after being charged with rape, a charge he was ultimately acquitted of.
  • Brett Stewart being removed as the “face of rugby league” and stood down for a period following allegations (ultimately found to be fabricated) of sexual assault.
  • Robert Lui being released from his contract with the West Tigers after being charged with various counts of assault against his partner.
  • Robert Lui, again, being suspended from playing rugby league for a year after being found guilty of assault against his partner.
  • Isaac Gordan being suspended by the NRL for 9 matches as a result of being charged over a domestic violence incident.
  • Nick D’arcy being removed from the 2008 Olympic team after being charged (and before his guilty plea) with assault having being involved a brawl with a former male team-mate.
  • Jake Friend having his contract terminated after falling asleep whilst drunk in the back of a cab and failing to pay the fare (for which he was charged).
  • Brett Seymour being sacked by two separate clubs over uncharged alcohol fuelled misconduct.

This is a small sampler of the punishment meted out by clubs and administrators across a number of sports in recent years for questionable player behaviour.  I make no comment on the strength or weakness of the punishments given out above.  They are what they are.

In addition to the examples above, and I note that I do not purport to know all of the facts of either case, now Messrs Stringer and Beale find themselves before the Courts on assault charges.  In both cases alcohol was involved.  Indeed in the case of Stringer the drinking before the incident has consistently been described as a “marathon”.

When one traverses all of the cases noted above, the common element appears to be the involvement of alcohol.  Equally, it also must be noted that some of the “offenders” noted above are repeat “offenders”.  The travails of the likes of Messrs Carney, Friend, Seymour and Lui are not isolated incidents or one offs: the matters noted above are portions of ongoing conduct which, again, has been consistently alcohol fuelled.

Whilst sports fans lament the lack of a “punishment” for Beale’s alleged conduct, there seems to me to be two far greater concerns arising out of the Beale and Stringer cases.  They are:

  1. Why are the punishments previously meted out to players who have been charged with assault NOT (in addition to the usual deterrents) having a deterring effect?
  2. Is there an alcohol problem in sport?

For the latter question, the usual glib responses are “they are just young men having fun” and “the problem is not alcohol, it is people pestering the stars when they are just trying to have a quiet drink”.  I can not accept either premise: if you are not a sportstar you are not absolved from punishment if you are an idiot or abusive when you are drunk.  The alternate glib response is “but that is the way it has always been” also does not fly with me because community standards have changed since the days of listening to your sport of choice on the transistor radio.

My personal view (and I admit I have had my own problems with alcohol in the past) is that there is a problem with alcohol in sport.  Part of the problem is obvious and is that, unlike most 18-25 year olds going out for a night on the town who have to pull up when their funds run out, sportstars have an unlimited available spend when they go out.  Of course they, the sportstars, are going to get drunk: presented with an bottomless wallet wouldn’t you? 

The former question is one to which there is no answer other than the punishments being meted out are not having a deterrent effect.  Equally, even if they were, I wonder if a player full of their chosen liquid refreshment would even think of the consequences before they step over the line like the players in the examples set out above.    

That being the case, I do not think the question of whether a player charged with a crime should play for their team after being so charged is the right question.  As fans we need to be asking of the sportstars and the people who coach and administer the games we all love whether enough is being done at all levels to seek to stop the cycle of alcohol fuelled violence that continues to pervade our daily sports fixes.  I, for one, do not think enough is being done: the evidence that this is the case is available for all to see above and in the sports pages every day.

In the end of course, after all of the hypothesising above, we are still left with the scenario where two elite sportsmen have been charged with assault and one is playing for his country on the weekend while the other is sitting on the sidelines.  I am left to wonder: how many more assault charges there needs to be before the question I raise in the preceding paragraph is seriously considered?