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BACK TO THE DARK AGES
The American Medical Association classifies dependency on cocaine and other "psychoactive" substances as an illness and recommends that it be treated as such. The U.S. Government follows that counsel in dealing with federal employees who have such a dependency. Over the past couple of years pro sports leagues have somewhat tempered their traditionally authoritarian approach to objectionable behavior and have offered cocaine abusers the prospect of rehabilitation rather than knee-jerk punishment. The number of athletes who have responded by seeking help indicates that cocaine abuse has become distressingly widespread in pro sports. At the same time, it's encouraging to think that many of those athletes have been helped by the sports establishment's relatively enlightened approach.
Last week major league baseball returned to the dark ages when the Los Angeles Dodgers, acting "in coordination and consultation" with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's office, fined Pitcher Steve Howe $53,867 and put him on probation for three years because of "continued or renewed involvement with illegal drugs after rehabilitation treatment." Howe had spent five weeks after last season at The Meadows in Wickenburg, Ariz, being treated for cocaine and alcohol abuse and had started the '83 season by pitching extraordinarily well for the Dodgers. But on May 29 he checked into the Care Unit Hospital in Orange, Calif. for further treatment. Players on the disabled list are supposed to be paid, but because the $53,867 assessment against Howe was calculated to equal his salary for the 30 days he was out of action for his treatment at Care Unit, it amounted to a docking of his pay. Without quite saying so, the Dodgers and Kuhn's office had, in effect, arbitrarily determined that Howe's drug dependency was no longer to be dealt with as an illness.
Bob Wirz, a spokesman for Kuhn, tried to justify Howe's punishment by saying that the player hadn't undergone treatment the second time "voluntarily," as Kuhn has specified must happen if "amnesty" is to be granted in drug cases. According to Wirz, Howe did turn himself in but only after the Dodgers had become aware of his condition. "It wasn't like he came completely forward," said Wirz. "He had failed to show up for a ball game." But another rationale for the punishment was the fact that Howe had to be hospitalized a second time at all—whether voluntarily or not. In a statement Kuhn said that baseball doesn't "guarantee amnesty for renewed drug usage or for failure to follow a rehabilitation program." And Dodger President Peter O'Malley said, "Eventually you have to draw the line."
In specifying that treatment be voluntary, baseball is getting itself into a semantic mine field; by the very nature of chemical dependency, many drug abusers deny their problem and have to be pushed into treatment by family and friends. Similarly, punishing Howe because he's a second offender ignores the fact that drug dependency, like many other illnesses, can require prolonged treatment and may result in relapses. To be sure, a club may well reach a point where its patience with a compulsive cocaine user is exhausted, but defining that point could just as easily depend, as with other illnesses, on how the condition affects athletic performance and a player's value to his team. The Washington Bullets admirably dealt with Guard John Lucas' drug addiction as an illness rather than a matter for punishment but, after Lucas was repeatedly AWOL from practices and games over an extended period, finally concluded last season that he was hurting the team and released him. The Dodgers obviously hadn't reached that stage with Howe; they had merely decided to "treat" what they acknowledge to be an illness with punishment.
None of this is to ignore, of course, that the sale or possession of cocaine is a crime and that its use by ballplayers may erode the game's appeal among fans and put the players in touch with pushers who have ties to organized crime. This in turn raises the specter of scandals, including major drug busts and game-fixing attempts. For all these reasons, sports officials can and should cooperate with law-enforcement authorities in trying to control the cocaine traffic.
Still, it's hard to see how baseball's gratuitous disciplining of Howe can have any effect other than to drive the use of cocaine by players further underground, where it will be even more difficult to root out. Although the action against Howe was accompanied by predictable protestations of concern about the game's "integrity" and "image," baseball's higher-ups might better express that concern by leaving punishment to law authorities and confining themselves to offering players every opportunity for rehabilitation. "We can't tolerate the use of illegal drugs," O'Malley said in defense of his club's action against Howe. Yet dealing with cocaine dependency as a disability isn't tolerating the problem. Rather, it's the most realistic way of trying to solve it.
READING AND WRITHING
Richard Coop, who teaches educational psychology at the University of North Carolina, and Robert Rotella, director of sports psychology at the University of Virginia, have written a book aimed at helping student-athletes do better in their academic work. The book, Becoming a Winner in the Classroom, which will be published later this summer, approaches the subject pragmatically. Coop and Rotella feel that the classroom weaknesses evident in so many college athletes are to a large extent the result of poor study practices and weak test-taking skills. They further maintain that these are areas in which the athlete, accustomed as he is to working hard to learn techniques on the field or in the arena, can improve markedly.
Coop says, "We're telling the athlete, 'Read your professor and read your textbook as if you're reading a defensive secondary.' " The word "read" in this context means analyze and solve, i.e., look at the professor, the text and the course itself as problems to be solved. The word apparently isn't meant to be taken literally. Not wishing to scare off readers with forbidding pages of unrelieved text, Coop and Rotella have put their advice in the form of a conversation among three student-athletes. "We have illustrations, too," says Coop. "We wanted something they won't be overwhelmed by." Recognizing that some student-athletes might find even the illustrated conversations heavy going. Coop and Rotella have taken another step to assure that nobody is overwhelmed. They're also making their book available on tape cassettes.