Over the years, the NBA’s drug policies have been affected by internal policy shifts and external regulation. It can be difficult to objectively gauge the effectiveness of these changes. For instance: How do we define success? What’s the tangible impact of these policies? And is the message we’re sending consistent with our true values? To answer these questions, we have to take a trip back in time.
On June 19, 1986, two days after being selected with the second overall pick in the NBA draft, Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose. He was 22 years old. When Bias died, it not only influenced the direction of the Boston Celtics franchise, but led to the creation of the “Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986”, a controversial law regarding sentencing for drug offenders. Eric E. Sterling, counsel to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, spoke candidly to Frontline about the way the situation was handled:
“In 1986, the Democrats in Congress saw a political opportunity to outflank Republicans by “getting tough on drugs” after basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. In the 1984 election the Republicans had successfully accused Democrats of being soft on crime… (Tip) O’Neill knew that for Democrats to take credit for an anti-drug program in November elections, the bill had to get out of both Houses of Congress by early October…
One idea was considered for the first time by the House Judiciary Committee four days before the recess began. It had tremendous political appeal as “tough on drugs.” This was the creation of mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases. It was a type of penalty that had been removed from federal law in 1970 after extensive and careful consideration. But in 1986, no hearings were held on this idea. No experts on the relevant issues, no judges, no one from the Bureau of Prisons, or from any other office in the government, provided advice on the idea before it was rushed through the committee and into law.”
Mandatory minimum sentences were disproportionately applied to African-Americans for crack cocaine possession. From 1986-1999, the number of African American drug offenders being admitted to prison increased 18 times more than for white offenders. Essentially, the death of a successful collegiate athlete who abused powdered cocaine led to the mass incarceration of low-income crack users.
The law was passed under the guise of helping the very communities it hurt the most. Legislators were unduly harsh because, at the end of the day, drug abuse was a problem for which they had no clear solution. The law accomplished one thing: it allowed bureaucrats to say they were tough on crime.
Bias’ death reinvigorated the league’s stance on “drugs of abuse”. To this day, NBA policy is incredibly harsh. Any player who fails a drug test for substances such as cocaine, speed, heroin or LSD will be instantly disqualified from the league (with the possibility of future reinstatement, as in the case of Chris Andersen). Much like their Congressional counterparts, the NBA imposed penalties for users and then washed their hands of the matter. Unfortunately, a much larger challenge lay hidden just out of sight.
In the NBA, failed tests for Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) yield far more lenient penalties. The first failed test results in a 20 game suspension. The second failure results in a 45 game suspension. If a player fails a test for the third time, they are banished from the league. Essentially, the league has a three strikes policy regarding steroids and zero tolerance for hard drugs.
While the users of Schedule I narcotics become addled and wither away, steroid enthusiasts are often embraced. In my mind, there could be no better deterrent against recreational drug use than watching a great player like Michael Ray Richardson slowly fade away before your eyes – but there is no similar example for PEDs.
The sad truth is that, oftentimes, our society better rewards those who cheat their way to success than those who work hard and fail. We view these violations as inherently different, even though each user seeks the same end: an escape from the burden of being less than perfect. The elephant in the room is the unspoken belief that steroid users are somehow better than those whose drug abuse has less glamorous side-effects.
In 2005, House Government Reform Committee chairman Tom Davis (R-VA) stated that he would propose a uniform drug-testing policy for all of the four major sports. Of all four major sports, basketball has the weakest policies with regards to drug testing. In fact, Lawmakers on the panel described NBA policies as “pathetic” and “a joke”.
Davis resigned from Congress in 2008, but the issue continued to haunt professional basketball. By 2011, NBA testing consisted of four random tests each season and two tests during the off-season. Earlier this year, the association announced plans to expand their policy to include testing for human growth hormones (HGH). Starting next season, all NBA players will be subject to three random HGH tests per year. This could mark a major change in NBA culture – or maybe it won’t.
Many critics still see this as somewhat unnecessary, because PED use has no Len Bias. With the exception of possibly OJ Mayo and Rashard Lewis, there have been very few notable instances of NBA players found guilty of doping. While the halls of the NBA are filled with murmurs about recreational drug use, there is an odd silence regarding performance-enhancing drugs.
The last NBA commissioner, David Stern, said, “it’s not a problem.” LeBron James denied that anyone in the association uses steroids. In fact, Derrick Rose is one of the few players that acknowledged PED use even exists within the NBA. There are obviously massive inconsistencies in these stories, and yet we all remain silent. No one wants to open that door. No one wants to imagine a world where their heroes sit in locked hotel rooms, undergoing secret blood transfusions to outperform their peers.
In 2013, Bill Simmons wrote a fantastic piece for Grantland.com entitled: “Daring to Ask the PED Question“. Simmons knows as well as anyone else that there are some questions NBA fans don’t want to ask.
“We look the other way when NFL players are allowed to create any excuse they want for a four-game drug suspension (usually Adderall), or when David Stern tells a reporter that he doesn’t see how PEDs would help NBA players (yeah, right)…
We look the other way as the NBA keeps its own little Santa Claus streak going: Of all the running-and-jumping sports that feature world-class athletes competing at the highest level, only the NBA hasn’t had a single star get nailed for performance enhancers … you know, because there’s no way hundreds of overcompetitive stars with massive egos would ever cheat to gain an edge with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake… “
Maybe we don’t want to know about the truth because we don’t have a solution; or worse, because we don’t really care. Either way, no one wants to face the uncomfortable silence – it’s much easier for us to bury the truth under policies of zero tolerance or incredible leniency. For now, I guess we’ll simply “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”.
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