Blog Editor’s Note: On June 6, 2013, our Triumph for Teens Gala in California will honor Leigh Steinberg, the legendary sports agent whose life inspired the film Jerry Maguire. Here, Steinberg talks football, positive role modeling, and the humbling game of recovery.
Phoenix House: How were you first introduced to Phoenix House and what motivated you to get involved?
Leigh Steinberg: In March 2010, I hit my own personal bottom from alcoholism. It provided a moment of clarity that I had to put my sobriety first. It also became crystal clear to me how many young people are affected by substance abuse. I realized that if they could learn in their teens or 20s what I learned in my 50s, a lot of suffering could be prevented. Phoenix House is a shining model of an organization that helps people redirect their lives in a positive way. They do God’s work by contributing to the recovery of people of all ages.
PH: You actively support humanitarian causes and you’ve always required the athletes you represent to give back to their communities. Why has it been so important for you to instill the value of community service?
LS: My dad was a principal in a Los Angeles public school. He raised me to treasure relationships, particularly with family, and to be a force for positive change in the world. So when I started representing athletes in 1975, I wanted my career to speak to those values. I saw how athletes, like movie stars and other celebrities, had the ability to inspire positive behaviors in others and I wanted to empower them to make a difference. Public service campaigns like “Real Men Don’t Hit Women” with Lennox Lewis and “Prejudice is Foul Play” with Oscar De La Hoya and Steve Young have had a tremendous impact.
PH: How do you think athletes can serve as positive role models when it comes to helping people, particularly teens, stay drug-free?
The reality of the situation is that contemporary pro athletes have lower rates of substance abuse and addiction than the general population. Athletes can model productive, happy lives and send a clear message to kids who idolize them that this is the right path to fulfillment. Many teens don’t want to listen to authority, whether it’s parents, teachers, or other adults. But athletes have the ability to permeate that perceptual barrier.
PH: On the flip side, you’ve written about the negative impact of substance abuse among athletes, particularly with performance-enhancing drugs. Recently, we’ve also heard about the detrimental effects of prescription drug abuse on athletes like Derek Boogaard. What message would you like to send to the sports community about the dangers of addiction?
LS: Professional athletes are under a huge amount of pressure to be bigger, stronger, and faster. But we remind them that they’re role models and if they don’t want to be a role model, they can go play in the sandlot. We also explain that anything designed to enhance performance can be addictive. The same goes with prescription drugs. Young people don’t understand that these drugs damage the heart and it’s possible to depress the respiratory system to the point where people can die. Kids play Russian roulette every time they misuse something from their parents’ medicine cabinets.
PH: You’ve publicly acknowledged your own struggles with alcohol and you’ve been very candid about your recovery process. By opening up about this experience, do you think public figures like yourself can help society understand addiction?
I’m no one special, but given the public nature of my experience, I thought that I could offer hope to others and raise awareness. Many people still don’t understand the disease concept of addiction. They think someone who’s addicted lacks moral character, willpower, and strength. I used to feel the same way; I’d think, “Why can’t they just stop?” But it gets to the point where the craving becomes confused in the brain. Addiction affects people of all social classes and ages. It’s not a matter of character weakness or being bad. It’s a disease that needs fixing.
PH: You recently celebrated three years sober. Congrats! What was your rock bottom and how did you find the path to recovery?
LS: I went from having a mansion, a limousine, and office with an ocean view to not even having a car. It was a remarkably humbling experience. My addiction had a devastating effect on both my family and my business. What worked for me was finding a sober living program, a 12-step fellowship, and a sponsor, reading critical materials, and protecting my sobriety date.
PH: You’ve said in the past that you spend about two hours a day maintaining your sobriety. Tell us what “one day at a time” looks like for you.
LS: If a meeting takes a couple hours a day and frees up the other 22 hours for a person to be more productive and engaged, I think that’s a good tradeoff—especially if you calculate the amount of time an addict spends abusing alcohol and other drugs. In sobriety, I’ve been able to restore dozens of relationships and get through a lot of difficulties. Sobriety doesn’t offer nirvana. People still have wreckage to go through and tragedies to deal with. But I’ve lived because of my ability to reason—and I know I can’t tackle any of life’s challenges unless I’m sober.Back to Index