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What message will USC send in Steve Sarkisian case?

What message will USC send in Steve Sarkisian case?
Steve Sarkisian, USC's head football coach, talks to the media Tuesday morning about his behavior and language during a weekend pep rally. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Like all new USC freshmen, Emily Rainbolt was required to take an online alcohol education course to learn about the potential dangers of drinking. She knows that students who violate campus policies on alcohol could be suspended or even expelled from school.

So when Steve Sarkisian, USC's head football coach, used foul language and insulted opposing teams while apparently intoxicated at the annual "Salute to Troy" pep rally last weekend, Rainbolt thought the university should have taken strong action.

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Instead, she wondered if she was seeing a double standard. Although Sarkisian apologized, announced plans to seek treatment and was dressed down by Athletic Director Pat Haden, the university has not announced any further disciplinary measures.

"I feel like he has to set an example for the students," Rainbolt said Wednesday. "I think it's important to have some accountability. But I feel like football is a different thing. If football players do something wrong, it doesn't really matter because sports are pretty big."

As the USC campus debates Sarkisian's behavior, the stakes go well beyond the fate of the Trojan football season.

How the university has responded to it is also coming under scrutiny, with some saying it sends a strong message about where USC stands on substance abuse.

More than 1,800 college students die each year from alcohol-related injuries — including a USC student last year — and nearly 700,000 students are assaulted by drunken classmates, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. One in four students reported that alcohol caused academic problems.

Shelley Klipp, a certified addiction specialist who works for a San Fernando Valley substance abuse treatment center, said the situation offers USC an opportunity to highlight the issue of alcohol abuse on college campuses. But it's also fraught with sensitivity.

"It's a balance between consequences and education," Klipp said. "If you give him a pass and let it go, it's not bringing it to the forefront. If you suspend him, it will start the discussion of what's really going on here."

USC declined to provide further details about the case. Carl Guido Marziali, a USC spokesman, said that university President C.L. Max Nikias and other administrators declined interview requests on Wednesday.

Some on campus said the media might be overblowing the Sarkisian affair.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC political scientist, said she didn't approve of Sarkisian's actions but noted that he made no derogatory comments about individuals or ethnic groups.

She also said it was difficult to evaluate the university's handling of the incident since Sarkisian's contract isn't publicly available.

"Is there a clause that prohibits him from certain activities that he clearly violated? We just don't know," she said.

Others say the stakes are important because of how big an issue drinking is in college life today.

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Marc Cooper, a former associate professor of journalism who retired in July, said that "the amount of drinking that's tolerated by USC at almost every level is shocking."

Seven years ago, Cooper said, he was on a committee that was reviewing other professors' performance. During the reviews, Cooper said, the committee found that two professors served alcohol to students during a night class.

"I was rather appalled because I just don't think it's proper," said Cooper, who said he believes it's fine if students over the age of 21 occasionally drink with professors outside of class in social settings.

"Could a professor be disciplined for that kind of behavior? Absolutely," he said. "Did anything happen other than these folks being told not to do it again? No."

The Sarkisian issue sparked plenty of buzz at USC, as students returned to classes and visitors toured the campus. Families posed for photos with the Tommy Trojan statue, students ate samples from the campus farmers market, and freshmen asked for directions to their new classes or talked to school clubs recruiting members at the university's Involvement Fair.

Adam Tuero, a 24-year-old graduate student and football fan, said the issue was properly handled and had even reaped some benefits, such as uniting the team and giving Sarkisian the chance to "own up to what happened" by allowing his players to mete out punishment with calisthenics.

"I think it was a very fair and fitting thing," Tuero said. "He's really making amends … everyone makes mistakes. I fully support Coach Sark."

Students who violate USC's policies against underage drinking, drinking in public and other alcohol-related rules are usually first treated with counseling. But sanctions can escalate to suspension and expulsion – particularly if alcohol abuse is related to sexual assault or other violence.

Campus policies toward faculty and staff members with alcohol and drug problems also focus on counseling and treatment for rehabilitation but include disciplinary sanctions up to dismissal.

The issue sparked an animated conversation between Noelle Uhler and her 17-year-old son Thomas, who came from Kansas to tour the campus Wednesday.

Sarkisian should be talked to by the athletic director, reminded that he is a role model for students and receive a warning — but not a suspension, Uhler said.

"I think that he made some bad choices and made a big mistake that he needs to learn from because he needs to be a positive role model for all the student athletes," Uhler said.

But, she added, "we're all human and I don't think it should be overboard. I think he's learned from his mistake.... This is an opportunity for him to show his student athletes how to handle something like this with grace."

Her son, however, disagreed.

"I feel that a student athlete would be suspended," Thomas said. "I think the coach should be held to the same, or even a higher, standard especially as a role model."

"That is a good point," his mom conceded. "Those athletes are held to an extremely high standard and the coaches should be held to an even higher standard."

"You're right," she told Thomas.

Other students said they were not sure what the fuss was all about.

"I thought it was hilarious. I didn't really think it was that big a deal," said Quinn Rockwell, a 20-year-old sophomore who said the behavior did not warrant a suspension. "I guess it's bad because someone in his position shouldn't do stuff like that. But I thought it was fine. I feel like people just try to make big deals out of things like that."

Arlen Moradi, a 19-year-old sophomore with two football players as roommates, said his biggest concern is how the issue will affect the football program.

While Sarkisian's behavior brought a "bad image" to the program, Moradi said, his ultimate fate should depend on his performance this season.

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"I feel like if they do good, it shouldn't matter," he said. "The record's all that matters."

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