When we think about drug abuse and sports—removing PED’s from the equation—two sports invariably get the preponderance of the coverage and blame. Regardless of evidence that substance abuse abounds across sports, just as it does across lines of race, space, class and gender, the general public thinks almost intuitively about NBA and NFL athletes with respect to substance abuse in sports. Compounding this misleading assumption, often hyperbolized “character concerns” dog the same athletes while other deserving athletes manage to escape such labels. Perhaps most interestingly with respect to “character concerns,” potential substance abuse often weighs much more heavily than what might otherwise be more alarming concerns such as mental illness, domestic abuse, and potential sex crimes. Take for example the 2015 and 2016 NFL Drafts as a case study.
In 2015, despite spending a year embroiled in sexual assault allegations, avoiding petty shoplifting charges, and yelling questionable sexual suggestions on a table in the Florida State student union, Jameis Winston became the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Despite a damning analysis of the purported assault in the acclaimed documentary The Hunting Ground, Winston managed to demonstrate that character concerns often do not include how one treats women, or if one abides by the law–assuming their not drug laws.
Just one year later a potential first overall pick dropped precipitously in the 2016 NFL Draft, marked as irredeemable on many franchise draft boards because a troll in Laremy Tunsil’s life released video of him smoking marijuana–purportedly in high school–on the night of the draft. Tunsil sat stunned, embarrassed, and hemorrhaging future contract dollars as he waited to be selected. All told, “character concerns” cost Tunsil at least $10 million dollars by most estimates. If most citizens future earnings were contingent upon youthful misadventures, this would make more sense. If we’ve learned anything here at Points, it is to expect the irrational when it comes to drugs and alcohol. To recap: sexual assault, theft, and inappropriate public speech can be forgiven. A youthful indiscretion with marijuana, despite a history of clean drug tests as a college athlete brands you irredeemable.
Tunsil’s draft night debacle highlights another important reality with respect to the purported transgressions and “character concerns” of today’s NBA and NFL athletes; nearly all of the athletes in question are most frequently involved in the use and abuse of alcohol and marijuana, not amphetamines, or cocaine, or crack–problems that plagued various professional sports leagues before and perhaps most prominently, during the Crack Era. In truth, the modern War on Drugs story with sport begins with baseball. In 1973, Senator Birch Bayh began a Congressional inquiry into the drugs in sports pertaining to the influence of athletes on juvenile delinquency. The hearing uncovered rampant abuse of amphetamines throughout MLB. Perhaps because of the racial politics of baseball and many of the players involved, we’ve forgotten this part of the narrative. Instead, the story of baseball and drugs skips a generation in the popular imagination to one team whose popular perception embodied the Crack Era. The 1986 New York Mets were at the epicenter of the crack boom, and powered by two young, formerly poor, newly minted drug enthusiasts in Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden. That older, more experienced, and well-noted drug users like Keith Hernandez might have influenced these young adults and habituated them to drug culture is less frequently a point of conversation.
In fact, Keith Hernandez is quite representative of the racial binary that often plays out with respect to drug use, “character concerns,” and athletes. On September 6, 1985, Hernandez testified before Congress in a special hearing addressing drug abuse in sports. Rather than stain his image irreparably, admissions of past drug abuse were painted as recreational, circumstantial, and impermanent. Drug use for Hernandez was a poor choice, not a permanent part of his character and reputation. Hernandez testified to using “massive amounts of cocaine” during the second half of the 1980 season, often playing games under the influence. In his testimony, Hernandez describes the period as one of “romance” between baseball players and the drug. A romance indeed. In the same hearing, Tim Raines admitted to routinely sliding headfirst to avoid breaking vials of coke in his back pocket. The mascot of the Pittsburgh Pirates reportedly sold drugs at the stadium, introducing players to higher-level dealers. Hernandez went on to blame marital problems and suggested that he was “fooling around” with cocaine, more or less on a “recreational basis.” This stands at odds with other portions of his testimony, particularly when Hernandez admits to losing weight and waking up with bloody noses and the shakes during his use. Preceding the nation’s aggressive response to crack a year later, Hernandez managed to skate into the 1990s relatively unscathed, appearing as a broadcaster, spokesperson, and sometimes comedic actor on Seinfeld.
A year later, and throughout their careers, Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden found less compassion from the public for similar transgressions. More interestingly, their transgressions were described, understood, and consumed by the public in starkly different terms. Drug use was not a youthful error, a moment of weakness, or merely a behavior. Drug use was a part of who they were, the underclass they came to represent, and the “tangle of pathology” Senator Moynihan wrote of glowingly twenty years prior. Drug use, also, began to carry stiffer penalties in professional sports, the judicial system, and in the court of public opinion just one year after the 1985 Congressional hearing. That the “Dead End Kids” hailed from poverty-stricken areas of South Central Los Angeles and Tampa, matters. Rather than end up on Seinfeld or in the broadcast booth, pitching legend Doc Gooden ended up a punchline on Celebrity Rehab.
Rather than celebrate the Horatio Alger nature of the pairs rise, Strawberry and Gooden were condemned, even at the height of their accomplishments. After winning the 1986 World Series, the headline of the New York News infamously read: “THE BAD GUYS WON!” Then and now, the Mets were not remembered for their 108 victories in 1986, but rather, for their extracurricular exploits. Author Jeff Pearlman recounts as much in his book, borrowing from the headline in question, The Bad Guys Won. In an instructive book review of Pearlman’s work, the New York Times entitled the review: “Buy Me Some Peanuts and Crack.” This Freudian slip begs several important questions. Why crack and not cocaine? Are Strawberry and Gooden remembered as crack users because of their race, class, and location in Crack Era New York? Who on the Mets used crack during the 1986 season? Based on both books, numerous accounts, and the New York Times book review invoking crack, we have no evidence that any players on the Mets were using crack. Why would they? Professional baseball players made good money, and crack was cheap, a drug marketed to and stigmatized as fodder for the poor. Why then the curious title?
Much as cocaine and crack are often conflated in the popular memory of the Len Bias overdose, crack is more frequently linked with Strawberry and Gooden because of their poor, urban upbringings. The linkages between the underclass, a purported “culture of poverty,” and crack litter most tellings of both men’s careers. Even Strawberry’s wife found herself condemned in a broader culture war that targeted black women for purportedly alienating and emasculating Black men. Jeff Pearlman writes of Lisa Strawberry with little self-awareness, revealing deeper cultural myths and beliefs about folks like Darryl and Lisa that went to Crenshaw High School. Pearlman writes that Lisa rubbed many of her husband’s teammates the wrong way because she was not the “typical ballplayer wife–a petite, large-breasted, dumb-as-a-shoe platinum blonde trophy.” Instead Lisa, per Pearlman, embodied every ugly stereotype of the period: “Lisa was big, hard, and loud.” Pearlman also noted her “bossy” nature in public, speaking to her husband in terms that were “downright demeaning.” Pearlman goes on to chronicle the verbal and physical abuse between the young couple while smoothing the likely jagged edges of other teammates personal relationships, including Hernandez. Perhaps most damning, Pearlman writes that the “yelling and pushing” between the two newlyweds was, “fit for Jerry Springer.”
Baseball’s most talented drug addict today is not met with scorn, but most often, with sympathy or pity. Josh Hamilton’s drug trajectory from painkillers following a minor league injury to poly-drug abuse is well chronicled. Each time Hamilton slips up though, we treat the transgression with compassion, seeking to understand his disease and his attempts to cope. Moreover, Hamilton’s character is rarely, if ever, questioned. Somehow his drug use is separate from his persona, it fails to define him as a man for many. We yawn when Wes Welker tests positive for MDMA, but ring our hands and punish aggressively when football players in the same league, but of a different color, relapse with alcohol or marijuana (see Justin Blackmon and Josh Gordon). We laugh when Tony Larussa is picked up for falling asleep behind the wheel after a night of drinking. We celebrate the quasi-functional alcoholic success of golfer John Daly.
The condemnation of black athletes for drug abuse escalated dramatically in 1986, most prominently in the NBA. While no NBA players were suspended or banned for drug abuse between 1966 and 1986, the onset of the Crack Era brought an onslaught of scapegoats and punishments as the league attempted to rehabilitate and corporatize their image by punishing players that used, and later, adding marijuana to the banned substances list. The league also instituted a new dress code to target urban streetwear on the backs of players like Allen Iverson. Almost overnight, it seemed, the NBA was full of drug abusers they needed to kick out, in some cases permanently. That the NBA took to “permanent bans”–mostly in name–speaks to the hyperbole of the period with respect to the Drug War. In 1986 John Drew of the Hawks and Jazz was banned permanently for repeated violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. Former New York Knick and New Jersey Net Michael Ray Richardson was also “banned permanently” in 1986 for repeated violations but was reinstated, after the election cycle, in 1988. Teammates Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins–father of now star Andrew Wiggins–both faced permanent bans for cocaine use before being reinstated in 1989. Similar stories followed in Chris Washburn, Roy Tarpley and Richard Dumas. Notable in the stories of Tarpley and Dumas are the creeping restrictions placed upon players deemed “character concerns.” Mirroring the broader Drug War, the NBA too instituted a “three strikes policy.” Both Tarpley and Dumas were ultimately banned because of specific clauses in their contracts regarding alcohol, a licit substance. To be clear, neither men were using or impaired on the job. Nonetheless, they were denied the right to practice their professions for life.
Unpacking this dynamic, Dr. Richard Lapchick, Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida explains: ““It’s not that there’s a higher percentage of African American athletes who are crossing the lines than White players, but the media have created two perceptions—that athletes in general are more inclined to be violent against women and use drugs, and that Black athletes are more inclined to do both. And neither is true.” Lapchick says he gets called regularly by media outlets when athletes are arrested. He notices a consistent, indisputable pattern: “If a sexual assault involves a hockey or baseball player, the questions generally revolve around the player. When it involves a basketball or football player, they ask, ‘what is it about African Americans?’” Dr. Boyce Watkins of Syracuse University asks a more productive question: Why does the media often fail to cover Black athletes modeling positive Black behavior?