I was less than three years old when Len Bias died 25 years ago this week. Therefore, I can’t really tell you what I was doing, or where I was, or what it smelled like outside when it happened. I can’t describe in any vivid detail what I felt or those around me felt, because I was too young to even comprehend what had happened not only to our local community, but the University to which I would eventually become an alumnus of, and the country at large.
But those of my generation, perhaps more than any other, have felt the effects of Bias’ death. Those who were children at the time have lived through the entire modern “War On Drugs” (which Bias’ death inaugurated), and some of the first battles for the hearts and minds of children happened to us. We sat through D.A.R.E. classes in elementary school, and we saw the messages from FBI Superintendent William S. Sessions warning us to stay away from drugs when we played arcade games. We are the generation of McGruff the Crime Dog and Afterschool Specials. All of this is the legacy of Len Bias.
Despite all of this, we’re still fighting the same battles today in the nation, in sports and in the culture with seemingly little progress (and can we even really define what “progress” is?). We still rush to make heroes of athletes on a whim, and then almost gleefully rush to tear them down as soon as they inevitably fail us. We bemoan the use of steroids and so-called “performance enhancing drugs” in baseball, yet we continue to ignore the massive overuse of painkillers in football and other sports. What do we have to show for the amount of time, money, energy and lives all of this has cost?
This is the ultimate tragedy of the Bias case. Some young men are fated to die for unexpected reasons, either through their own actions or the actions of others. But Bias in death became a symbol, a puppet and a tool of the privileged in this country to make war on those who are not privileged, and for the further erosion of civil liberties. We have become more insular as a nation, more hostile to outsiders, and less trustful of our fellow man because we have spent the last twenty-five years being bombarded with images of Bias and ominous warnings that “we could be next.” We have watched once-great American cities struggle in their death throes and blame those who can’t help themselves for it. And it has all happened in the name preventing another Len Bias.
What will another 25 years in a post-Bias world bring us? Will we still be fighting the same wars with the same casualties? What will the next generation look back and say what our legacy was? I hope that we can leave them with more than cynicism, and I hope that we can use what we have seen and learned to educate them the right way and prevent what happened to us from happening to them.