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Respect Will Come When Drugs Are Forced to Go

Athletics: Major league sports and its sponsors must set an example for children.

September 04, 1998|BARRY R. McCAFFREY | Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy

From the Tour de France raids to the latest basketball drug bust, the use of drugs in the sports world once again has captured headlines. Drug use among athletes broadcasts a mixed message that puts athletes, their sports and our children at risk. We need to act now to make the field of play a drug-free zone.

Children learn from and emulate athletes--whether it is their shooting stance or their drug use. For example, after the tragic death of Len Bias, youth cocaine use suddenly dropped. When athletes use drugs and are simultaneously rewarded for their athleticism, our children get the misimpression that drugs are not dangerous to physical well-being, dreams and aspirations. Once a child believes these falsehoods, the toll begins to mount: drug use, addiction, crime and even death.

Drug use by athletes also threatens the world of sport. Widespread allegations of drug use in athletics will cause chronic public cynicism. Outstanding feats of athleticism will be chalked up to better drugs, not greater character. Parents who fear drug use by their children find it hard to justify paying hard-earned wages to take their children to sporting events, only to spend difficult hours explaining away the behavior of the stars they helped create. The momentum must shift; we need to take the incentives out of drug use. When sponsors say no to drug use, the sponsored will stop. Money talks.

For Olympic athletes, however, the rewards are primarily medals and honor. The International Olympic Committee is taking steps to combat drugs, such as banning "nonperformance enhancing" drugs such as marijuana and Ecstasy and calling for a new, stronger drug testing agency. Now it must respond to admissions of doping coming out of the trials of former East German swim coaches and doctors who gave athletes steroids without their knowledge in order to increase "socialism's" medal count. Stripping medals from these victimized athletes seems unnecessary. Their suffering alone suffices to make the case against drug use.

To let these victories stand unremarked, however, sends the wrong messages to coaches, athletes and children. Steroid use among young girls in America is up; a study by Penn State University found that 175,000 high school girls reported taking steroids one or more times. Unless we make the consequences of drug use clear, more young women and men are likely to put themselves at risk. It seems past time to recognize and give medals to the true heroes of past Olympic competitions: the athletes who competed clean but were cheated of their victories by their competitors' doping.

Professional basketball as well needs to set straight its messages about drugs. Current National Basketball Assn. rules do not prohibit marijuana use by players, which some sources peg at 50% to 75% of the athletes. This situation puts the players, our children and even the game at risk: Players and management must join the ranks of the millions of other drug-free workplaces, which test employees at all levels, provide treatment programs and sanction continued drug use.

There are some positive signs. Eighteen major league baseball teams are showing anti-drug public service announcements in their stadiums at every home game. Major league soccer is sending strong anti-drug messages to its young fans and has named Dante Washington, star forward with the Dallas Burn, as national spokesperson against youth drug use. On Oct. 23, as part of the Office of Drug Policy's athletic initiative, the first ever "National Coachathon Against Drugs" will see coaches across the nation--from the peewee leagues to the big leagues--starting their practices with a message against drugs to their players and students.

These are good signs, but we must do more. Parents, coaches and youth leaders must insist that athletes as well as the organizations they represent and the companies that sponsor them are worthy of the respect of their young fans. Respect is earned; it will come when the world of sports takes a united stand against drugs.

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