AMONG players, coaches, fans and those who couldn't care less about football, Dexter Manley inspires considerable emotion. The man who was once the most feared member of the Washington Redskins' defense is loved and hated, pitied and reviled. Although Mr. Manley was found three different times to have been abusing alcohol and cocaine, National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has nonetheless lifted his "lifetime" ban from the game.

As a result, many have decried the hypocrisy of the NFL's drug policy and said that the "banned for life" penalty is just a one-year suspension that should either be acknowledged as such or given a true permanence that sends an unmistakable message to young people. They wonder whether the league will ever have the gumption to say "No more." Others, more forgiving, say Mr. Manley has already paid heavily for his mistakes. Both arguments have something to them.

But there are issues here that go far beyond another lifting of the ban. Mr. Manley is a symbol of the ravages of drug abuse, a lesson to every addict still living the lie and a message to those foolish enough to try drugs.

Consider what his habit did to him. Mr. Manley had been on course for the pro football Hall of Fame. At one time, before the drugs, he was that good. His name could have proudly hung from the stands at RFK Stadium, and he could have enjoyed the lifetime homage this fickle town reserves only for its most cherished sports figures. None of that will happen now. He let down his teammates, coaches and, most important, his family. He lost his gigantic -- $600,000 -- annual income. He was fired from the broadcast booths. He was kicked out of the NFL.

Forget the kind words of Redskins' officials. They never wanted him back. The worst team in the league wanted nothing to do with him, and he may yet suffer the same fate as the four other NFL players who survived the "lifetime ban": no playing time at all, or very little.

His career now is less important than this: Mr. Manley has a debt to repay. It's measured by how hard he works to regain the trust of others, by the days he manages to remain drug-free, and by the effort he makes to tell young people how he came to such a pass, and why.