Death and Alcohol at the UVA: Questions we should be asking

U-Va. Student from Chevy Chase charged in fellow senior’s slaying.  That is the headline in the May 4, 2010, Washington Post story chronicling the death of Yeardley Love.  Charged in her death is a college lover, George Huguely.   Both are 22 and grew up in the privilege of suburban Baltimore and Washington, DC.  Students at the prestigious University of Virginia and Division I Lacrosse players both had so much to live for and now, one is dead and the other is charged with murder.

Underneath the headline and the reporting of their successes and victories on the Lacrosse field is the story of problem drinking and over consumption of alcohol.  It is still too early in the investigation to draw detailed conclusions, but it is clear to law enforcement and University officials that alcohol was a factor in so much of Huguely’s behavior.  According to media reports, Huguely had a temper and problems with alcohol.  He was arrested in 2009, for public intoxication and resisting arrest.  Also, it is interesting to note that Yeardley Love’s roommate called authorities because she thought alcohol poisoning was a factor in her death.

George Huguely was quoted in the Washington Post in 2006, defending the Duke University students charged with sexual assault in a highly publicized incident that called attention to the drinking habits of the rich, the athletic and the popular.  The Duke students were later exonerated but Duke University completely ignored the presence and role that alcohol played in the incident that led to the original charges. One wonders what the University of Virginia will say or do about problem drinking in their sports and campus activities.  Underage drinking is against the law but receives a wink and a nod from University Officials that want to simply call it a right-of-passage.

Problem drinking, a condition related to over consumption in any age group, continues to plague the University environment. Young people pushing the limits of their capacity to manage their alcohol consumption and then engage in risky behavior threaten not only themselves but their families and peers.  University policies and practices around underage drinking or problem drinking are inconsistent and seldom enforced. Sports programs often receive a pass and the celebrity status often given to athletes on University campuses creates an environment where alcohol consumption is the norm and stupid and often deadly behavior is the consequence.

I have written in my book, Fatal Attraction: America’s Youth and Their Affair with Alcohol, that “Community social norms are critical variables in determining when and how young people choose to drink.  Many of us remember situations, however awkward they may be, when all around us individuals were drinking, and we were not.  There is both indirect and direct pressure to drink or at least an implicit community expectation that drinking would occur (51-52).”  It is the expectation of drinking and drinking to get drunk that creates our greatest challenges on the University campus. It is the expectation among many sports teams that victory or team cohesiveness must also include risky drinking behavior.

University of Virginia President John Casteen in a prepared statement released on Monday concluded, “. . .that however little we may know about Yeardley Love’s death, we do know that she did not have or deserve to die – that she deserved the bright future she earned growing up, studying here, and developing her talents as a lacrosse player.  She deserves to be remembered for human goodness, her capacity for future greatness, and not for the terrible way in which her young live has ended.”  That is true and as an advocate for the safety and welfare of youth globally, I must ask:  what can we do to prevent these tragedies from reoccurring?  I would hope that President Casteen and the University of Virginia would factor in the issue of both underage and problem drinking as a contributor to violence and senseless death.  Because it would appear that the terrible way in which her young life ended was associated with problem drinking.

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