Committed to change

Drug and alcohol policy proves a positive force on Chico’s high school sports teams

Pleasant Valley football coach Mark Cooley says he’s revised his philosophy on how to deal with players caught drinking or using drugs since learning about Athlete Committed.

Pleasant Valley football coach Mark Cooley says he’s revised his philosophy on how to deal with players caught drinking or using drugs since learning about Athlete Committed.

Photo by Paula Schultz

‘Committed’ broadly:
Athlete Committed is one of four companion Committed programs sponsored by Butte County Behavioral Health; the others involve parents, businesses and physicians. To learn more, visit and use the “Committed” navigation bar.

When Mark Cooley became varsity football coach at Pleasant Valley High School four years ago, he not only inherited a team with a strong tradition but also a new standard for off-the-field performance.

The Chico Unified School District had recently adopted Athlete Committed, a national program sponsored locally by the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health. For both Pleasant Valley and Chico high schools, the district revised conduct policies for students involved in extracurricular activities, reflecting the consequences for drug and alcohol use framed by Athlete Committed.

Students breaking the rules regarding drinking and drugs wouldn’t necessarily lose their right to participate. Rather, at the discretion of their coaches/advisers, they could earn a second chance by changing their behavior.

For Cooley, in his second decade of coaching, this represented a significant shift. He came to PV with a no-tolerance mindset; he’d allow no drinking or drug use from players, and dismiss from his team any player caught doing so.

As he learned more about the rationale behind the Athlete Committed program and the policies, however, his thinking evolved, and so did his disciplinary actions—three players who would have heard “You’re off the team!” got the opportunity to redeem themselves and remain Vikings.

“We can hold kids accountable,” Cooley explained. “As kids have gotten caught and I’ve changed my philosophy about a second chance, they’ve had to step up to the plate. They’ve had to address the entire team, explain what they did wrong and ask, ‘Hey, help me not go down that path again.’ They all get on the same page, and I’ve seen a much larger buy-in.”

Cooley remembers his high school days in the 1980s, when partying held a prominent place in the culture—in fact, some parents had no qualms about playing host to their teens’ wild nights. It wasn’t just in his hometown of Mount Shasta: This era spawned DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).

“Those types of programs were all focused on the negative aspects of alcohol and drugs,” Cooley said. “Those programs are awesome; I think there’s a place for them. I think this one [Athlete Committed] goes above and beyond, and talks more about some of the positive things as an athlete and as a person that you can accomplish by doing this [program].”

The curriculum, shared with students and parents at the “code night” orientation before each school year, not only includes scientific information on how drugs and alcohol affect the body, but also how sleep, nutrition and training impact achievement. Cooley noted that the program has been adopted by the U.S. Navy SEAL Team—members of which visit both PV and Chico High—as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“So if the highest[-level] athletes in the world and the most elite warriors in the world are doing this,” he added, “then it’s got to be good enough for high school kids. And college kids. And professional athletes.”

Athlete Committed launched locally in 2010. So far, Chico and Biggs are the only county school districts to sign on; however, others have expressed interest, according to Jeremy Wilson, community services program manager for Butte County Behavioral Health.

Wilson and Danelle Campbell, program manager for the department’s Prevention Unit, became interested in Athlete Committed after hearing founder John Underwood speak at a conference. They wanted to stem a rising tide of high-performing students, namely athletes, in “the party scene” and appreciated what Wilson describes as the “multifaceted approach” championed by Underwood.

“The last thing we want is to teach youth that if you make a mistake—if you make a decision that’s not in the best interest of your team, your school and your family—it’s all over, all the things you enjoy are taken away from you and you’re not plugged in,” Wilson said. “Rather, you made a mistake, you can learn from it and you still can be a part of the team, the choir, the band, or whatever it may be.”

Not only is that policy “more teachable,” he continued, it also recognizes human physiology. The last part of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe; “that’s what governs reasoning and decision-making and impulse control.” Thus, cognitively, adolescents “don’t necessarily have all they need to go, ‘Wait, in this moment, this isn’t necessarily the best decision.’”

The Athlete Committed code has expanded to also ban bullying and harassment.

In the five years of using Athlete Committed, CUSD’s high schools have educated over 7,000 parents and athletes. Behavioral Health reports a 35 percent decrease in athletes’ perception of teammates using alcohol or drugs during the season and a 13 percent increase in the perception that team members should not attend parties with drugs or alcohol consumption (based on a 2013 survey).

Anecdotally, Cooley has seen changes. “Mistakes have been made, but the remorse from the kids now is different,” he said. Moreover, the health education promoted by Athlete Committed has translated into healthier habits, such as those he notices at lunchtime with students bringing their own meals from home or picking up more nutritious options than fast food when heading off-campus.

In the wake of code night, which Pleasant Valley held last Thursday (Aug. 13), the athletic department pledges to keep momentum rolling throughout the academic year with a series of friendly competitions between athletes and coaches, such as bowling and capture the flag.

Cooley said Athlete Committed’s curriculum, not just its standards, should be incorporated in all school groups over the next few years.

“It’s a healthy lifestyle choice in general—not just for athletes, but for anybody,” he said. “But on the athlete side of it, it’s been hands-down one of the best programs I’ve seen available.”