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Expert: Alcohol counselors must guard against undertreating NFL players

| Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

As the NFL and Players Association grapple with a compromise on penalties for players involved in alcohol-related incidents, rehabilitation has become a focus for both sides.

Steelers rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu continues his road to recovery following his arrest in October.

Ta'amu is among a growing list of players and front-office personnel — including former Steelers receiver Hines Ward and Tampa Bay director of pro scouting Shelton Quarles — who were involved in alcohol-related incidents over the past three years.

“It was a regrettable experience, and I won't do it again,” said Ta'amu, a fourth-round draft pick from Washington. “I have to keep moving forward, and I will because I have good support behind me.”

Adolpho Birch, the league's senior vice president for law and labor policy, said the league seeks to strengthen existing programs, including rookie symposiums and development seminars for veteran players. Also, the league banned alcohol on team flights and in locker rooms following games.

“We try to do a number of things in conjunction with our substance-abuse program,” Birch said. “We don't tolerate it by any stretch. We have mechanisms in place to address it from a disciplinary standpoint but also in terms of treatment and counseling.”

Steelers veterans, including nose tackle Casey Hampton and receiver Jerricho Cotchery, agreed with the franchise's decision to re-sign Ta'amu after suspending him and then releasing him.

“It was important to show support when it seems like everyone is against you,” Hampton said. “It's good to have somebody in your corner, and it sends a message to the team that we are family.”

Dr. Neil Capretto, the medical director at Gateway Rehabilitation Center who worked several years with the NFL in treating alcohol abuse, said of all major professional sports, the NFL has perhaps the best alcohol and drug education programs.

He said the challenge sometimes rests with counselors, who must guard against undertreating players because of their status.

“With high-profile people, you want to make sure it doesn't work against them,” Capretto said. “It's generally good to have people working with them who are experienced dealing with them and not be stargazed by them. We can't give them special breaks because of their status.

“Because it's an NFL player doesn't mean they are going to have an easier time in their recovery. What we try to tell each person is, an alcoholic problem requires ongoing management. You have to stick with it. You can't ignore it.”

Ta'amu said he has learned valuable lessons. More important, he recognizes the consequences of his actions.

“It's about saving my career and my life,” said Ta'amu, who added he hasn't had a drink since the incident. “I had to think about my job, my career, my life rather than drinking. It's been easy for me lately. It's a big part of me to stop drinking and keep on moving on.”

Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com.

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