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The Bad Guys: Drugs, Race, Sports, and “Character Concerns”

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

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.

mets. winston

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

mets. tunsil

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

mets. baseball v. drugs prevention

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

mets. straw and doc

In fact, Keith Hernandez is quite representative of the racial binary that often plays out with respect to drug use, “character concerns,” and athletes.  On September 6, 1985, Hernandez testified before Congress in a special hearing addressing drug abuse in sports.  Rather than stain his image irreparably, admissions of past drug abuse were painted as

mets. keith and reagan

A year later, and throughout their careers, Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden found less compassion from the public for similar transgressions.  More interestingly, their

Mets. dead end kids

Rather than celebrate the Horatio Alger nature of the pairs rise, Strawberry and Gooden

mets. bad guys won

Much as cocaine and crack are often conflated in the popular memory of the Len Bias overdose, crack is more frequently linked with Strawberry and Gooden because of their poor, urban upbringings.  The linkages between the underclass, a purported “culture of poverty,” and crack litter most tellings of both men’s careers.  Even Strawberry’s wife

mets. straw and wife.

Baseball’s most talented drug addict today is not met with scorn, but most often, with sympathy or pity.  Josh Hamilton’s drug trajectory from painkillers following a minor league injury to poly-drug abuse is well chronicled.  Each time Hamilton slips up though, we treat the transgression with compassion, seeking to understand his disease and his attempts to cope.  Moreover, Hamilton’s character is rarely, if ever, questioned.  Somehow his drug use is separate from his persona, it fails to define him as a man for

mets. gordon.

Wes Welker tests positive for MDMA, but ring our hands and punish aggressively when football players in the same league, but of a different color, relapse with alcohol or marijuana (see Justin Blackmon and Josh Gordon).  We laugh when Tony Larussa is picked up for falling asleep behind the wheel after a night of drinking.  We celebrate the quasi-functional alcoholic success of golfer John Daly.

The condemnation of black athletes for drug abuse escalated dramatically in 1986, most prominently in the NBA.  While no NBA players were suspended or banned for drug abuse between 1966 and 1986, the onset of the Crack Era brought an onslaught of scapegoats and punishments as the league attempted to rehabilitate and corporatize their image by punishing players that used, and later, adding marijuana to the banned substances list.  The league also instituted a new dress code to target urban streetwear on the backs of players like Allen Iverson.  Almost overnight, it seemed, the NBA was full of drug abusers they needed to kick out, in some cases permanently.  That the NBA took to “permanent bans”–mostly in name–speaks to the hyperbole of the period with respect to the Drug War.  In 1986 John Drew of the Hawks and Jazz was banned permanently for repeated

mets. ray richardson.

Unpacking this dynamic, Dr. Richard Lapchick, Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida explains: ““It’s not that there’s a higher percentage of African American athletes who are crossing the lines than White players, but the media have created two perceptions—that athletes in general are more inclined to be violent against women and use drugs, and that Black athletes are more inclined to do both. And neither is true.”  Lapchick says he gets called regularly by media outlets when athletes are arrested.  He notices a consistent, indisputable pattern: “If a sexual assault involves a hockey or baseball player, the questions generally revolve around the player. When it involves a basketball or football player, they ask, ‘what is it about African Americans?’”  Dr. Boyce Watkins of Syracuse University asks a more productive question:  Why does the media often fail to cover Black athletes modeling positive Black behavior?


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