WHEN UNIVERSITY of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died last June from cocaine intoxication, it shocked people all around the country. He had been a local hero, emulated by youths wherever a backboard and rim could be found. He had been portrayed as a clean-living, born-again Christian. We were told that he had to have been coerced, or that something was slipped into a drink. Who supplied the cocaine? How did it happen and who was to blame? Nearly a year later, after the acquittal of Brian Lee Tribble, the man accused of supplying the cocaine to Mr. Bias, the answers are still not clear. But there are more questions.
To press an apparently flimsy case against Mr. Tribble, Prince Georges County prosecutors tried to debase Mr. Bias' clean image. They used the plea-bargained testimony of two of the basketball player's teammates, among others, to call Mr. Bias a regular user of cocaine and a willing middleman. To clear Mr. Tribble, a defense lawyer argued that Mr. Bias may have obtained the fatal cocaine himself. A jury of 12 bought none of the prosecution's case and found Mr. Tribble not guilty.
What do we now know? As one juror put it, that Mr. Bias died after "an evening of celebration" involving the use of cocaine and that he had to bear some responsibility for his own actions. Had any of his friends and mentors tried to dissuade him? That wasn't part of the trial, but there were many neglected responsibilities in the background of this case. Many share the blame. The university's athletic program was out of control. Half of its basketball team had flunked out. Players considered the drug testing program "a joke." In the aftermath of Mr. Bias' death, a controversial coach departed and so did the university's athletic director.
The Bias episode is a terrible warning to students and athletes who are tempted by cocaine and fail to think of the anguish it could bring. It is a warning to coaches -- professional and collegiate -- who stoke the pressures and temptations on young athletes without providing the help those athletes need to make the right choices.