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Commentary : Coaches Believe Just What They Want

March 22, 1987|TONY KORNHEISER | The Washington Post

So far on the chemical abuse beat we have a confession from the starting point guard on the NCAA championship Villanova basketball team, Gary McLain, that while in college he was a cocaine user and dealer, we have Mike Mitchell, for the last two years the leading scorer on the San Antonio Spurs, abruptly checking into the NBA's approved drug treatment center in California, and we have the Washington Redskins' most luminous player, Dexter Manley, admitting what many in town suspected, that he has an alcohol problem, and booking himself in the NFL's approved treatment center in Minnesota.

In the cases of McLain and Mitchell we've been apprised of mystification on the part of coaches and management. The Villanova coach, Rollie Massimino, said of McLain's involvement with cocaine, "I never knew. If I had, he wouldn't have been on our team." San Antonio's general manager, Bob Bass, said of Mitchell's sudden departure, "I don't know if it was cocaine specifically, or not. None of us has talked to him." In Manley's case, Redskins management will say privately that they've been concerned for Manley for a long time. But even after repeated episodes of erratic behavior, Manley was neither suspended last season, nor was he sent away for treatment.

One of the interesting questions raised by these separate but thematically related incidents is: How much do coaches and management really want to know about their players involvement with drugs and alcohol?

Not that much, I suspect.

For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is: If I know, what do I do next? Coaches aren't adequately trained or prepared for the next step. Nor should they be, they're not therapists. Drug abuse is ravaging the country, getting the better of parents, teachers and clergy, so why should coaches know how to deal with it?

Most coaches go to sleep at night saying this little prayer: Please, let my players not be dirty. But if they are, let me not know about it, and let nobody else know either.

When Manley magnanimously offered to "leak in a cup" on national television, presumably to prove he was drug free, the Redskins declined his offer. We know they suspected the worst. But why confirm the suspicions when there are games left to be played? Dexter Manley can't help you win if he's not playing. Professional sports is a business, and the business often gets in the way of the humanitarian impulse. Coaches and owners want their players to be healthy and drug free. But all things considered, if there's a problem that requires hospitalization, they'd rather face it in the offseason. And if that sounds callous, it's callous on both sides. Players routinely lie about their drug problems. They want to play as much as management wants them to.

I'm not sure there's any great difference between college and pro. Granted, you might expect less compassion in the pros because there the player-coach relationship is contractual. But McLain lied to Massimino just like John Lucas lied to Bill Fitch. The lying probably hurts worse in college, because the coach recruits his players and regularly comes to love them as sons. When a recruit fails, the coach may see himself -- and the program as extended family -- as failing, too. The stain spreads wider in college: to the team, program and the school. In the pros, drug use is, sadly, considered routine, and an individual, not a collective, problem.

Massimino acknowledged he'd heard rumors about McLain's involvement with drugs, and confronted McLain about them. "He vehemently denied them," Massimino said. " 'No way, Coach,' that's what he told me. That's all I could go by."

Without doubting Massimino's sincerity, he could have known -- just as the the Redskins should have known -- even without drug testing. He could have had an assistant shadow McLain. A college campus is a small town. Dealing drugs doesn't stay secret.

McLain, whose veracity is questionable, implied that Massimino did not want to know the truth, which McLain claimed would have revealed other players using drugs, too. "I figured he had too much to lose," McLain wrote. "I honestly believe nothing ever came of it (a threatened investigation into drug use on the team), not because he didn't have enough to go on, but because he had too much."

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