How does the United States’ professional sports community regulate not only the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but also the dangers of recreational drugs?
In the 1970s baseball was undergoing a transformation; the game was transitioning from the traditional good boy’s game of the 1950s and was incorporating edgy, confrontational pop culture. In fact, baseball seemed so clean that before the 1970s, Major League Baseball did not monitor players for drug use. Furthermore, during the ‘70s many players used “greens” as their drug of choice. “Greens,” or Dexamyl, were very popular with baseball players for the drugs’ ability to keep athletes energized during their road games and tough workouts.
By 1970, however, baseball players were experimenting with more than Dexamyl and other amphetamines. Dock Ellis was one of the most eccentric players of the time. He was recognizable by the curlers that he wore in public and his unique style. Subsequently he is probably most known for pitching a no-hitter on LSD.
On June 12, 1970, Ellis was panicked: he was supposed to pitch that day. The only problem? After going back home to Pittsburgh on his day off, Bias found himself high on LSD mere hours before being set to pitch. However, being on LSD didn’t seem to faze Ellis, and he still managed to pitch. When he got on the field, it was quite obvious to his teammates that he was on something, but the exact substance and the extent of his altered state were unknown. While on LSD, pitching was not easy for Ellis and he relied heavily on his teammates. His no-hitter would not go down as the most graceful no-hitter of all time; he threw the ball into the dirt multiple times and he may have hit a few batters. During the game, Ellis described not being able to see the batter, but his catcher helped him by putting tape on his fingers. Despite the superstitious nature of the game, rookie Dave Cash kept repeating, “you got a no-no going!”
The crazy thing is despite being high as a kite, he completed the no-hitter! Few people knew that he was high, and even fewer knew what he was high on. Ellis’ LSD scandal wasn’t uncovered until years later, after a decade of drug experimentation.
During the same years that Ellis and others were playing while using drugs, professional players and management were ironing out contracts to regulate the rights and conduct of players and management. The resulting collective bargaining agreement pushed the minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000 and helped form the Major League Baseball Player’s Association. However, this first collective bargaining agreement failed to address the rising influence of drugs in professional sports.
For most Americans, June 19, 1986, began as a typical Thursday. The NBA draft had concluded just two days before, and young athletes across the country were celebrating their NBA future. However, the day will be forever marred by tragic and unnecessary tragedy: the death of Len Bias.
As an all-American basketball star at the University of Maryland, Leonard Bias’ social drug use abruptly ended his promising life and career, leaving the world to wonder what he might have been. As a young player, Bias had a raw ability; he was physically gifted with a wide wingspan, and he could jump high. Overall, he was an extremely athletic player. As his game developed, he was able to hone his skills, his form of play and ability even being compared to North Carolina star (and future hall of famer) Michael Jordan. Jordan and Bias were the most highlighted athletes in college, but as we know, only Jordan reached his potential. After Bias’ senior year he applied for the 1986 draft in hopes of playing for the Boston Celtics.
Boston was thrilled to have Bias as their second overall pick, but their excitement was short-lived. Just two days after the draft, Bias met up with his friends and after a long night out, he returned to his dorm in Washington Hall. Around six a.m., a few of his friends, including former classmate Brian Tribble, began to engage in social binge drinking and snorting lines of cocaine. Soon after, Bias collapsed and began having seizures, something that was surprising to his friends and former teammates. At 6’8” and 210 pounds it was difficult to see how a small amount of cocaine could harm such a powerful athlete. Those who were present at the incident and his fans across the country did not want to accept Bias’ unfortunate death. Bias was declared dead at 8:55 a.m. on June 19, less than 48 hours after being drafted to the Boston Celtics.
Bias’ overdose affected athletes across the nation. Young players realized that the athletes they had idolized for so long were not invincible. The entire nation was in shock.
Professional sports are criticized for failing to cover traps that many young and unstable athletes are prone to falling into. In Bias’ case, cocaine was presented to him at a very vulnerable period in his life. Bias exemplified the nation’s ignorance of the power of cocaine; he was clouded by the fame, women and the influence of his friends.
Bias’ death sparked awareness surrounding drugs in professional sports and their influence on the youth of America. Proponents of the war on drugs would use his death to push for unnecessarily harsh drug-related prison sentences for low-level offenders.
However, the awareness brought about by Bias’ death has saved countless lives. After his death, Bias’ mother became an anti-drug activist and gave lectures about the danger of drugs, sharing her experience with her son’s substance abuse.
In 1993, the National Basketball Association and the National Basketball Player’s Association met and started the NBA collective bargaining agreement in an effort to address the issue of drugs in sports. This agreement established a set of guidelines between the NBA and NBPA, which covered a range of issues including salary cap, free agency, the NBA development league and the anti-drug agreement. These guidelines are updated every few years in order to meet the new issues that arise between the NBA and NBPA. The MLB also has their own collective bargaining agreement between the MLB and the MLBPA that covers substance abuse restrictions and punishments.
In the NBA, the anti-drug agreement was created to weed out any players using performance enhancing drugs and to aid players in their recovery from substance abuse. The 2011 CBA, which is still active and enforced, subjects all players to six unannounced drug tests; two of the tests are performed during the off season and the other four are performed during the season. Players who are found using recreational drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, are expelled from the NBA but are allowed to apply for reinstatement after two years. Players who are found using performance-enhancing drugs are suspended for twenty games for their first violation, and the suspension increases for every subsequent violation.
As we’ve seen in recent news, this issue still plagues the world of sports today. Lamar Odom, Josh Gordon, and Josh Hamilton are three modern day examples that have publicly suffered the consequences of substance abuse. Their highly publicized struggles highlight the continued need for drug awareness and education among athletes nationwide.