Author’s Note: In digging through my archives recently, as I recounted here, I came across another piece I’d written many moons ago. My sons were born in 1983 and 1986, respectively. The elder was going to basketball camp every summer, starting at age nine. The younger started playing soccer before the age of nine and started playing basketball in sixth grade. They were avid sports followers and often knew of things transpiring in the world of sports before I did. They still do.
Given the drug-related sports news in 1997 and in years before, I was compelled to write this piece. In re-reading it now, some 26 years after writing it, and in sharing it now, I’m astonished at how little we’ve learned.
August of 1997 was a tough time for those who aspire to vigilance — or attempt to find rationally consistent sense — on the drug-watch. It was especially trying for those of us with children, whose budding adolescence we watch with wonder, fear, and particular trepidation over their susceptibility to temptation and peer-pressure. I’m not talking about the stuff we find curious, the way our parents found Elvis curious. Though they cause their peculiar shivers, I’m not talking about Rap Music, body-piercing, or the X-Games. No. For those of us on the watch, I’m talking about only one of the Big Two.
Sex, of course, is the tag-team bugaboo of drugs. But, for all the alarmism sex engenders — as it has since the Edenic beginning — the species continues to survive the predictable and inevitable sexual peccadilloes of every generation. Sometimes, contrary to human nature, we even learn from our mistakes. On the other hand, sexually transmitted diseases notwithstanding, drug-use tends to provide fewer opportunities for enlightenment: It’s hard to derive redemptive lessons, to retrospectively construe the mistakes of your youth as the catalysts for atonement in your maturity, when you’re dead. Let’s look at some of the conflicting developments:
On August 6, the federal government released a report contending drug-use among teens was lower in 1995 than it had been in 1996; although, it was still significantly higher than it had been in 1992. Here are the stats, if you’re interested:
That’s good news, I guess; and it was followed by another item, which might also be viewed as good.
On August 16, Mary Decker Slaney, arguably the country’s premier, female, middle-distance runner, was cleared of doping charges by USA Track and Field. (She was charged after having shown allegedly high levels of testosterone at the ’96 US Championships and is yet to be cleared by the IAAF.) Though track and field doesn’t get press coverage commensurate with other sports, and most of its athletes aren’t media-darlings, Slaney is arguably a role model. So, especially since her guilt or innocence will never be known or reported, optimists can interpret her clearing as a positive blip on the drug-use screen.
However, while track and field may not be hugely popular, Batman and Robin certainly are; and, on August 18, Robert “Jeep” Swenson, one of the stars of this summer’s Warner Brothers film, Batman and Robin, died of heart failure, presumably from the steroid abuse that had allowed him to bulk up to more than 400 pounds. Anyone who took children to see that film, and whose children wondered how the character, Bane, got to be so huge, should tell the children right now: The actor took massive amounts of steroids to bulk himself up to that enormity. It worked. He got the part. Now he’s dead.
The Fed’s August 6 report, the simplicity, reductiveness, and dubiousness of which are suggested by the Slaney and Swenson stories, is just one of a prolific series of such reports, from which the evidence is frequently contradictory, always malleable, and sure to provoke at least three predictable responses: First, such reports inspire the same looks of distaste and the same professions of bewilderment that meet all revelations of the malodorous right under our noses. Second, they become political fodder faster than you can pour a beer, roll a joint, fire up a crack pipe, pop a pill, or load a fix — manipulable enough to be made to support any contention or agenda, conform to any slant or ideology. Third, they cause fingers to start pointing erratically in all directions like a vane in a windshear. But it’s not the wind. The stink didn’t waft in from elsewhere. It’s indigenous. It’s always been here. And it’s not a problem to be solved by politicking and public policy. (Despite President Clinton’s recent, anti-cigarette grandstanding, the government clearly can’t legislate us out of our all-too-human predilections for addictive behavior and our incessantly curious desire for the forbidden fruit of banned or controlled substances.)
Consider this: In 1986, the cocaine-related death of former University of Maryland basketball player and Boston Celtics recruit, Len Bias — particularly the media coverage of his passing and the way some of it was packaged for and slanted toward young people — made me acutely aware of how dangerously wrong-headed some or our perceptions of and admonitions about drug-use are. As the father of two young and athletically active sons, I’m particularly troubled at the fact that we try to position as fallacy the notion that drugs are performance-enhancing. We routinely say that drugs (Slaney’s testosterone, Swenson’s steroids, Bias’s cocaine, as well as growth hormones, amphetamines, ephedrine, etc.) do not enhance performance. Of course, they do! That’s precisely why they’re so dangerous!
If we tell our children that drugs are not performance-enhancing, the first time they try cocaine (as just one example, chosen because it’s one from my own experience) they’ll be sure they’ve been lied to. (“Wow! No wonder they didn’t want us to know about this.”) Call it the placebo effect, call it self-fulfilling self-deceit, call it imaginary … call it anything you like. The first time they try coke, they’ll feel and/or perform better than they ever have before, (1) because that’s the nature of the stimulant’s effect and (2) because they’ll believe the drug enables them to. That truth is not limited to children.
At a recent rehearsal of the trio in which I play guitar, the bass player arrived at 7:30 p.m., looking a little shop-worn. He conceded to having just come from a work-sponsored golf outing, at which he’d been drinking beer since 10:00 that morning. He also brought a cooler with him, which was well-stocked, and from which he partook liberally throughout our three-hour rehearsal. Granted, he was a tad more absent-minded than usual; but, other than that, he played better than I’d ever heard him play! I haven’t catalogued my bandmates’ respective inhibitions, so I don’t know what particular hang-ups were conspicuously absent in the bass player that night. But I do know he was letting his hands go and playing with more fluidity and creative inventiveness than I’d ever heard from him before. While alcohol is a depressant, as opposed to a stimulant, it’s not generally considered performance-enhancing. But it does reduce inhibitions and may have allowed the bass player to perform with less self-consciousness, in which case, it could surely have been considered performance-enhancing. For his sake, I hope he doesn’t construe cause and effect and conclude the development of a habit or a pattern is in order; however, his altered state of consciousness that evening certainly put him in a different musical one. And that truth recalls the point:
To tell children drugs and alcohol are not performance-enhancing is self-defeating because it sends a false message and paints an incomplete picture: I tell my sons that drugs are, indeed, performance-enhancing; that’s why they’re so dangerous. I tell them the truth is they make you feel like Superman. But soon after you start, you have to do a little more each time, only to end up feeling a little less like Superman. The effects are short-term and degenerative. And the point comes all too quickly at which whatever you’re doing, the substance or the amount, just isn’t enough to get you back to, or keep you, where you want to be. So, it’s more. It’s something stronger. It’s substance-stacking. It’s a bigger and bigger preoccupation to achieve and maintain the feeling. It’s gradually deteriorating performance. It’s a hastening, concentric, downward spiral to NO performance.
At this stage of my diatribe, I feel like I’m delivering one of those incredibly naive, clichéd, and righteous speeches Jack Webb gives to the unwitting young punks or the deluded ivory-tower adults on Dragnet. Maybe. But I’m informed by this: On those occasions, twenty or more years ago, on which I played guitar using cocaine, taped my performances, and listened to the playback — even, or especially when, I listened to the playback when I wasn’t high — I couldn’t believe how well I played. My chemically induced energy was clearly evident. All my inhibitions and questions of confidence were gone. I simply poured out music through the instrument. And that’s precisely and only why I stopped doing it: As good as I felt, and as well as I certainly did play, I was not willing to make the Faustian long-term deal in exchange for the short-term performance gains.
Drugs DO enhance performance. Then you die. Tell your children.