Alcoholism is labeled in a number of different ways, which might be why it’s so hard for us to determine how we feel about it. It makes us sad, confused, angry, frustrated, hurt. Sometimes, amidst the laughter and jubilation of the atmosphere in which it is cultivated, we don’t even know we’re staring an alcohol problem straight in the eye. So as it cooks and bubbles and rises to the surface like hot magma inside a rumbling volcano, we pretend it’s not even there, that it’s not a thing.
We joke about it, we chuckle at every one of our friends we deem a borderline alcoholic, and we keep the party going until that climactic moment when we simply cannot rage any longer. And then, suddenly, it’s not fun anymore.
This is where we find Steve Sarkisian.
By this point, not one week into its life cycle, you’ve probably heard the story. The former University of Washington head football coach is now the former University of Southern California head football coach, fired on Monday after being placed on indefinite leave just 24 hours prior. The absence was necessitated by a substance abuse problem that, based on most reports, indicated Sarkisian was struggling with a severe alcohol dependency. Shortly after the absence begat termination, it was made public that the 41-year-old had admitted himself to a rehabilitation facility.
Substance abuse has officially wrecked Sarkisian’s career. It may or may not have contributed to an ongoing divorce that has divided his family in two. It has almost certainly brought his life to a point that he never could have envisioned in years past, when he first signed on to coach the Washington Huskies, then later the USC Trojans.
Sarkisian was considered a brilliant offensive mind, one who thrived under the uber-successful tutelage of Pete Carroll, then set out on his own to lead the aforementioned college programs. He was a leader on the rise at both stops, a wunderkind, a guy who had it all with still more to gain. He had a beautiful wife, children, and more money than most of us will ever see in a lifetime. All of that gave many of us reason to like the man. Later, all of that would give many of us just as much reason to despise him.
When Sark was introduced as Washington’s newest head coach in December of 2008, he was immediately loved by all who considered themselves Husky fans. His first press conference was a rousing success, filled with promise and hope and excitement for the future of a football program that had been run into the ground by its previous leader, one Tyrone Willingham. Sarkisian was in every way the anti-Willingham, brimming with personality, youthful exuberance, and the ability to charm just about anyone to whom he talked. When his Huskies knocked off the very same USC team led by his mentor, Carroll, in his first year on the job, Sarkisian could have won elected office in the city of Seattle. It was a done deal: Sark was a savior.
Over time, the honeymoon came to an end, as it always does. Steady progress led UW to their first bowl game in eight years in Sarkisian’s second season at the helm. A fourth-place conference finish the following year kept momentum rolling in the program’s favor. But a crushing 67-56 loss to a Baylor squad featuring one of the all-time great offenses in that season’s final contest, the 2011 Alamo Bowl, halted the Sark lovefest. Another postseason loss in 2012, this time to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl, stirred up questions about Sarkisian’s ability to get the most out of the talent he had recruited. Heading into the 2013 campaign, a troubled relationship between school, coach, and fan base was in full swing. By the time 2014 rolled around, Sark was gone, off to supposedly greener pastures in Los Angeles.
Over the course of five seasons as the head coach at Washington, Sarkisian’s marriage to a fan base that had once fallen head over heels in love with him simply fell apart. A healthy dose of the UW faithful spent the bulk of the ’13 season calling for the coach’s head. When he left for Southern California prior to the Huskies’ appearance in the 2013 Fight Hunger Bowl, many felt it was a blessing in disguise. The abrupt departure would both preclude the administration from giving Sark another year (or two, or more) to manage Washington, and simultaneously prevent the union from deteriorating to the point of termination. It was, to most onlookers, the best case scenario for all parties involved.
That didn’t stop Husky fans from issuing parting shots at their former head coach, however. Part of being a fanatic involves remaining blindly loyal to one’s team, which meant that if Sark was no longer with the Huskies, then he was against the Huskies. And because he was against the Huskies, he became the enemy.
Thus began a veritable war waged across the vast spectrum of the internet – Twitter, Facebook, message boards – between fans who aligned as either friends or foes of the ex-coach, seemingly destined to never reach a conclusion. Not so long as Sarkisian remained the skipper of any team that rivaled the Washington Huskies, at least, and that day certainly didn’t appear on the distant horizon.
To pretend that many of us who call ourselves Husky fans haven’t wished a smidge of ill will upon Steve Sarkisian would be naïve – we have. Personally, I’ve exhausted nearly every opportunity to poke fun at the man on social media and in print since he left, all in the spirit and pursuit of tawdry laughter.
And I’m not alone in that. Once upon a time, as recently as a few days ago, we all made jokes at Sarkisian’s expense. Jokes about his public drunkenness, about his alleged womanizing ways, about his stagnating successes, about anything one could possibly dream up. And people laughed at those jokes. Those jokes were popular, however cheaply they may have been contrived.
Twitter and Facebook alike were perpetually abuzz with jabs at the former Husky head coach. He was an easy target – a handsome, accomplished millionaire living the life as we, his scorned exes, attempted to move on. He held the reins of one of football’s most powerful positions. He could seemingly do no wrong, despite his attempts. And because of that, we hated him. We hated him and we wanted to let him know in the easiest possible way: through our keyboards.
So we scripted a new record of the man who had begrudged us… well, something. Everyone has their reasons for bitter loathing. It was probably easiest for Husky fans to spew vitriol, and maybe it was at that moment that the national portrayal of who Sarkisian was as a person began to shift. No matter what it was that turned people against Sark, it was clear that turned they had. Were football coaches bestowed a popularity rating like our nation’s presidents, Sarkisian’s surely would have been in steady decline since he packed up and moved to L.A.
And this, finally, is the part of our story where confusion really sets in. This is where the camps split. This is the fork in the road.
There are those who will always insist that, leading up to this moment, Sark dug his own grave. That he knowingly acted on his own accord and caused these problems for himself.
Opposing that view are those who will contend that an addiction acted on Sark’s behalf, that the alcoholism set in long ago and controlled the vessel the man inhabited. Neither camp is necessarily wrong. Neither camp is exactly right, either.
Regardless, as soon as it was understood that Sark had a problem and that he would need treatment for that problem, the jokes quickly dried up and the account immediately changed. And it’s understandable. You generally don’t joke about things beyond an individual’s control. Which is why this is so interesting. Because depending on which of the aforementioned camps you fall into, you may or may not believe Steve Sarkisian had control over the matters that ensued. Did he do this to himself, or did something else do this to him?
At the same time, to pretend we haven’t all been impacted in some way, shape, or form by alcoholism would be both idiotic and insensitive; at the very least, human nature kicks in and allows us to sympathize with those whose lives have been touched and ruined by a condition that, frankly, society enables.
And maybe that’s where we should focus our attention, on the enabling. Because if one thing is absolutely clear here, it’s that Sark was enabled beyond the point of needing help. He was enabled at Washington, he was enabled at USC, he was enabled by his bosses, by his coworkers, by his assistants, and by anyone else who turned a blind eye to his off-field hobbies.
Sure, ultimately Sark caused his own problems. No one forced him to down all the drinks he likely consumed. No one forced him to head to bars after games or stock a liquor cabinet in his office. No, he did all that himself. Along the way, however, he had help. He had help from the people who imbibed with him, who told him exactly what he wanted to hear, who processed his absurd expense reports, who hid the stories from the public, who swept the dust under the rug. He had help controlling his problem at every turn. But as is the case with many problems, he eventually couldn’t help himself.
And really, why would anyone stop a grown man who wants to drink? And not just a grown man who wants to drink, but a man deemed a successful leader, who lives the life we all want to live, who has all the things – the money, the fame, the fortune – we all crave. Why would anybody try to stop that man? That man is the American society’s ideal human being. We would never stop him. We would help him, perhaps, as many did. Or we would seek to tear him down, as we often do with those who have more than us. Both those phenomena occurred with Sarkisian. And both almost certainly contributed to his current demise.
What’s captivating about this story, this budding scandal that has begun to emerge, is that there is more. What we already know about Sarkisian – his alcohol dependency, his substance abuse, his trials and tribulations – is just the tip of the iceberg. There is more to this tale that has yet to be revealed, that will surely surface in the coming days and weeks. More that will raise eyebrows and shape beliefs and transform a narrative that has gone from punchline to pity almost overnight.
Where Sarkisian is concerned, the “more” may not matter. His focus now is on recovery. For a myriad of onlookers, however, the evolution of this story will alter perceptions and determine what’s next for the embattled former coach.
As the remaining details come to light, the court of public opinion will rule on the fate of a man who has succumbed to an enabling culture that has delivered him to this point: caught between an overindulgence in his own personal vices, and a need to rid himself of a disease, a condition, a weakness, a flaw, or an addiction that has shattered his very existence.