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.