William Bennett, President Bush's newly appointed drug czar, held a get-together in Washington on May 17 for the leaders of the professional sports leagues. Bennett is a man with a big pile of wood to chop, you might say, and he wants help. He called in the sports leaders because he believes that pro athletes should be enlisted to help him swing the ax.
The rampant sale and use of illegal drugs—especially among young people—has wounded America badly. Bennett need only stroll a few blocks from his Washington office to see how crack has turned neighborhoods in the capital into battlegrounds. In the District of Columbia during the first three months of 1989, 120 people were murdered, mostly in drug-related incidents. So Bennett has a right to feel some measure of desperation. But desperate men often do desperate things rather than the right things. At the meeting Bennett asked the elders of sport to see to it that athletes become active combatants in the war against drugs, and he urged them to enact harsher penalties for drug use among these athletes.
"He said that he was a sports fan and that everybody loves sports," says Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "He said that athletes should be held to higher standards than other citizens." (Also at the meeting were commissioners Bart Giamatti of baseball, David Stern of the NBA, and Pete Rozelle of the NFL; NHL vice-president Steven Ryan; and players" union representatives Donald Fehr of baseball and Charles Grantham of the NBA.)
While pointing out that this was a get-acquainted session and that another, more substantive meeting would be held in a month or two, Bennett suggested to his guests that pro athletes who are found using or possessing drugs should be suspended and, if caught a second time, be removed permanently from their sport. "Professional sports plays a very important part in American life and a very important part in the American imagination," Bennett said afterward. "Professional sports has to be part of the solution."
What he was saying, in essence, is that pro athletes are role models for young people and, as such, must behave better than the rest of us. This is an old assumption that many take for granted. But is it true?
Athletes are often envied for their fame and wealth, as well as for their grace on the field, court or rink. But it is not at all clear that they play a role in the formation of character among the public generally or young fans in particular. This magazine, for example, celebrates athletes and their accomplishments, but that does not mean that every—or, even, any—athlete that SI writes about is a paragon of virtue. This is a sports publication, not a handbook for leading an enlightened life; and I believe most SI readers realize that.
Moreover, even if some members of our society choose to regard pro athletes as role models, this does not mean that the athletes must accept such a mantle. Says Upshaw, "We put athletes on so high a pedestal that we forget they're human."
But they are very human. The reasons some athletes use drugs are the same reasons other adults do—stress, boredom, immaturity, depression, the quest for thrills. While we're talking about adults, another point: Pro athletes are often more important to grown-ups than to kids. We adults are mainly the ones who go to the games and read the sports pages. Expecting athletes to serve as role models for youth may be a way of shirking the role-model duty ourselves. I believe that kids are far more influenced by their peers and parents than by anyone who hits a slap shot or dunks a basketball. As a kid, I could have dealt with the failings of Paul Hornung or Denny McLain far more easily than I could have handled the failings of one of my parents.
It's understandable to be overprotective of children, to feel they cannot deal with disappointment. But the thing kids sense quicker than anything is hypocrisy. Certainly it is tragic when Stanley Wilson of the Cincinnati Bengals goes haywire on cocaine the night before the Super Bowl, but let us not make more of it than it is. Wilson is a man with a serious problem who happens to be an athlete and whose career has been shattered by his inability to deal with his problem. I think kids can understand that. But a 12-year-old will probably have a harder time understanding when Mike Schmidt, a 39-year-old millionaire, appears on TV telling him to just say no.
Athletes should act decently, ethically and lawfully regarding drugs and everything else, just as we all should, and some athletes are well suited to be role models. But by insisting that all pro athletes be the standard-bearers in the war on drugs, Bennett not only is imposing an unfair burden upon them but also is misreading kids.