Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Somewhere Between Len Bias and A-Fraud


If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that word this month, I'd buy myself and my reader lunch today.

I have little interest in professional sports. I stand on pro hockey ice long enough to get that really cold burning feeling between the months of January and April. I tune into the NFL on Sunday afternoons when my wife allows it. I watch the Masters, US and British Open golf championships. I tune into Wimbledon. 

That's pretty much the extent of my curiosity in paid athletes. So why do I care about how many shots of andro Mark McGwire took? Why does it interest me that Bonds may have used the cream?

Len Bias became the face of the nation's cocaine problem back in the mid-80s when he collapsed after a night of partying. The tragedy was just 48 hours after Bias became the fresh face of the Boston Celtics franchise, the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft. 
Alex Rodriguez has recently become the new face of MLBs steroid and performance enhancing drug epidemic. Suddenly Pete Rose's transgressions don't seem so heinous.... (photo: BaltimoreSun.com)

I work with kids daily that look up to these guys and others just as athletically gifted. How many of us would have been heartbroken as kids had we learned that situps and pushups weren't the cause for Herschel's physique? How many others would have chosen a similar shortcut?

I see kids daily that wear the jerseys of NBA stars who regularly and casually use substances the league doesn't even test for - bad message that could result in fatal consequences for teens who don't get an opposing viewpoint from an adult in the home. 

Another reason I'm concerned about this subject is because I spend a lot of time actively participating in and following UGA Athletics. So it got me curious about NCAA rules and regs. How are performance enhancing drugs policed? Are Teabags' musckles real? Is it possible Mount Cody could've substituted a stack of biscuits for stacked 'roids?

I didn't get far in my research before I found two sites that especially caught my wandering eye. First I thumbed through the NCAA's publication on their drug testing program. It was informative, but I think I pretty much knew that drinking a six-pack of PBR before competing in riflery was frowned upon. 

The AJC article published last May by Alan Judd however told me more about UGA's stance on drug use, whether they're 'roids or the street variety. Suffice it to say that the UGA Athletic office handles offenders with a firmer hand than Tech's. I'm all for an offender getting counseling, but I prefer my alma mater's athletic office to take a more direct approach in punishment as well. 

If I send my kid to run track and field at UGA and she gets caught with chemicals in her system, as her father I'll handle the counseling side of things (thank you very much) as that is more of a personal, family decision. Her coach should be the one to remove her from competition.

But the reality may be that getting caught is a rare occurrence. The NCAA randomly tests during post-season play. It is generally up to schools to police on their own. That leaves a lot of variance.

In the aftermath of the Len Bias death, the University of Maryland completely overhauled it's drug testing program and student-athlete support framework. That was a reaction to the loss of a native son. Too late to save Bais' life, but hopefully in time to prevent other tragedies.

We cheer the players that wear the red and black each Saturday in the fall and beyond that in other sports. If you're like me you even stick your nose up when leagues like MLB create a bed of substance use that they must lie in. (photo: MLB.com)

It's in times like these that wins on the competitive field take a backseat to the safety of the student-athletes that perform for our pleasure. It is in times like these that I am proud to have great leaders in the halls and offices of our athletic department. Andy Landers, Suzanne Yoculan, Mark Richt, Manny Diaz....the list goes on. It even includes Dennis Felton.

I watched on NSD as CMR talked about the type of young man they look for when they recruit players. This is a man who has taken a lot of undue criticism for the decisions some of his players have made. He talked about character, discipline, leadership. When pressed about times in the 40, he and Martinez all but scoffed.

Forty times are unscientific, as susceptible to faulty stop watch usage as they are to being run downhill.

But I bet you these coaches can tell well before the ink is dry if the kid has character and/or potential for leadership roles on their respective team. Certainly they know before they leave the kid's high school or living room whether or not they can help mold the young athlete into a good young man or woman.

The word leadership has been batted around casually and formally related to the football team as of late. Many fans have chimed in. Others have openly wondered why is leadership important? Why not just sign the kids who can play the best, run the fastest and then worry about molding them into leaders later?

It ain't that easy. There are many styles to leadership, each born within the person and developed through time and experiences. Pollack lead through his actions on the practice field and his non-stop motor 'tween the hedges. Greene had the command and attention in the huddle to bring out the best in the other ten Georgia jerseys on the field. 

Those are just a couple of examples. Do a 180 and you'll find a couple more. Like Quincy Carter or Mike Mercer. Great players that may not have had the structure or self-discipline to maximize their potential while in Athens.

So while we are quick to embrace the leadership we see on the field, we should be just as quick to lock onto the leadership that happens off of it.

I once listened in as a very wise man spoke to a gathering of teenagers closing in on graduation. He told the story of three teens who lost their lives from sniffing a foreign substance..."huffing" I believe it is called. He mused that the conversation likely went something like this:
  • Teen 1 - "Let's sniff this." 
  • Teen 2 - "It'll be cool."
  • Teen 3 - The last to speak had the opportunity to turn the entire evening around, instead chose to say, "Ok." Their bodies were discovered in a car early the next morning, well after their last breath had been taken.
What would have happened had that third teen been truthful and explained how dumb it sounded? What if he had laughed and said "no thanks!" as he got out of the car they were parked in?

At least one life would have been saved. Maybe as many as three.

P.B. Fitzwater once defined character as "the sum and total of a person's choices."

Caught in a situation like the one above, the student-athlete that possesses character may just be the person to turn a hazardous situation around by saying "no thanks." They may just decide to get out of the car. 

The time we spend barking for our players is a mere fraction of the time they spend on UGAs campus. Take a moment to feel proud that our coaches take the time to try and find players who are not just the right fit physically, but also personally.

And when the student-athlete walks across the stage to take that piece of paper...bark even louder. 



dean said...

Nice post. As the father of 2 boys I'm using this whole "steroid" situation to try and teach my oldest son that there are no shortcuts in life. He's only 7 but hopefully if I start now he'll remember later what the consequences are for taking the easy way. I just hope 10 or so from now Tiger Woods doesn't come out and say he used performance enhancing drugs. Because he's my example of how doing things the right way and hard work pay off.

Bernie said...

As expected dean, you're a good dad. That would be a travesty. My four year old has a teddy bear she named Tiger Woods when she was three after watching the British Open with me.

But as you alluded to, Tiger seems to be the antithesis to the modern athlete. Hopefully that sentiment stays the course.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, you once again have given me pause about support and the ever slippery slope of 'it was just one time'. I have long thought there is a big difference between betting on games (even if there is direct evidence of throwing games) and taking enhancements. Pete Rose shouldn't be in the hall of fame until he dies. It is a lifetime ban. Some of the modern ballplayers should never be in. Period. I hope I am able to raise my kids that winning is great, but it takes a bigger person to lose (while giving everything) with honor is far better.

AuditDawg said...

Bernie, your post seems to touch on the underlying issue around steroids that everyone seems to be missing. I'm very glad you brought in the parental counseling side to the argument. We've created a culture where we want to be able to point fingers at everyone else but ourselves (MLB, Congress). In the end it is not MLB's or Congress' responsibility to educate our kids about what is right or wrong and what is good for your body and what is bad for your body. This ultimately falls to the responsibility of the parent. That's why I'm so sick of this steroid outrage being expressed because some baseball players decided to take steroids. If our children end up taking steroids it's not because of Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds. It's because we failed as parents to educate our children about steroids.

Sports Dawg said...

One of the best posts on a sports blog I've read in a long time. Thanks!

Bernie said...

You guys are making my laptop blush...afterall, it does all the grunt work.

And great points about being true to your kids and why Congress should keep to "important" issues.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, great post.

I am the father of two girls so I am beginning to prepare myself to handle the kinds of questions that are sure to arise when they learn about things of this nature.

I think, for myself, the Len Bias situation had a tremendous influence on my outlook on drug experimentation. I wasn't inclined to do it before, but when that happened it strengthened my resolve to never even consider being around anyone who engaged in that kind of activity.

So, these things matter and have an impact on young people.

Again, great post. Keep it up, the Dawg Nation is lucky yo have you.


Bernie said...

Thanks Ridge. Re-reading that story about Bias was truly heart wrenching. It's the kind of story that makes you evaluate our roles as parents, citizens and alumni.