Here we go again. This time, on fourth and short in the continuing saga of former Washington Redskins superstar Dexter Manley and his bout with illegal drugs, the National Football League punted.

I am happy to see that Manley, for the third time now, feels that he is clean and sober and ready once and for all to live his life drug-free. I really wish him the best in his continuing recovery from substance abuse. But the fact is Dexter Manley should not again have the privilege of the limelight of a professional football career. Neither should any other athletes identified as drug abusers.

Make no mistake about it, Dexter Manley and others deserve every opportunity for recovery. But given the national crisis stage we have reached in this country regarding drugs, high-profile drug abusers -- whether athletes, entertainers or political leaders -- should not be handled with kid gloves. Today's troubled young generation may see this and mistakenly interpret it as a backhanded okay to use drugs, depending on who you are. While improvements in law enforcement, treatment and education would go a long way to solving the drug problem, it is also important, as my colleague Rep. Lawrence Coughlin (R-Pa.), the ranking minority member of the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, has said, to "build cultural opposition to drug use." We cannot do that if we continue to throw the big fish back in when they are caught, yet reel everybody else in.

During Manley's nine-year career, I am quite sure that his raging success on the field spawned perhaps thousands of sandlot football games across the country in which little boys ran around wearing No. 72 on their backs and tried to sack the quarterback. Regardless of whether Manley considered himself a "role model," the fact is that youngsters who watched him on television and read about him in the newspapers made him their hero. They did as much as they could to be like Dexter Manley. Ditto for other sports heroes.

But after the ruling by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue allowing Manley to return after three missteps with substance abuse, it became clear to those same emulators and perhaps thousands more young people that in America we really do not consider drug abuse bad or wrong unless you are poor, underprivileged, disadvantaged, locked out from society and without a big name to get you off the hook. Will they feel more comfortable copying these athletes' off-the-field shenanigans as well, since it appears that you can get away with it?

Society is not in short supply of bad role models for our young people. Further, our young people are perceptive. They know the irony of our preaching about the horrors and dangers of illegal drugs then backing away when someone with a "name" is caught in the tangled web of drug abuse.

This in no way is a personal strike at Manley. Unlike many others I have observed, he at least has come to grips with the problem and seems sincere about correcting his course. He seems to have shown remorse for the hurt he has heaped on family, fans, teammates, the game and society. He let a lot of people down, and he has faced up to it squarely. Yet Manley is the latest example of the hypocrisy of professional sports leaders who talk loudly and sternly about drug abuse but turn into putty whenever there is an opportunity to say, "Enough is enough" and show people that drug use leads to a dead end -- no matter who you are or what you are doing.

Manley is just the tip of the iceberg. Other leagues and other players pull the same "tough talk, soft walk" charade. I was appalled to learn that the National Hockey League has allowed a player to return after he was convicted and served time on a drug-trafficking charge. It is unbelievable how the drug crisis is trivialized in professional sports.

Several weeks ago, when Washington Mayor Marion Barry was sentenced for a highly publicized drug conviction, some people labeled as harsh the sentence handed down by the judge. To some, it was unfair that the mayor of the nation's capital would have to spend six months in prison for drug possession. The argument from some observers was that an ordinary person would have been given only community service or probation, and there was talk of a possible "double standard."

I said at the time that if there wasn't a "double standard," there sure needs to be one. We need to be tougher on those who are public figures or who have achieved a measure of fame and fortune to illustrate to everybody else that we deplore drug use so much that we do not consider anybody's station in life to be an exemption when it comes to cracking down on drugs.

The professional sports leagues can be of real service to the war on drugs. But before they can really make a contribution, they must decide to be tough, go on the offensive, make their words ring true or give up the ball.

The writer, a Democratic representative from New York, is chairman of the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.