In one of the countless commentaries on the death of Len Bias, superstar basketball player and local hero, the commentator recalled a W.H. Auden poem about the tragedy of an athlete dying young.
A better analogy exists in the tale of Daedalus and Icarus, one of those stories of gods and heroes from the ancient world of the Greeks, as reprinted in Bulfinch's "Mythology":
"Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too high the heat will melt them. Keep near me and you will be safe."
Daedalus fitted the marvelous, intricate wings he had fashioned with thread and wax and feathers to his son's shoulders, kissed him, "not knowing it was for the last time," then flew off, encouraging Icarus to follow. As they flew above the earth, a shepherd stopped his work to watch, "astonished at the sight, and thinking they were gods who could thus cleave the air."
The fable proceeds to its tragic, preordained ending:
"The boy, exulting in his career, began to leave the guidance of his companion and soar upward as if to reach heaven. The nearness of the blazing sun softened the wax which held the feathers together and they came off. He fluttered with his arms but no feathers remained to hold the air. While his mouth uttered cries to his father it was submerged in the blue waters of the sea . . . . "
Whichever of the versions you prefer, the modern or the ancient, the Bias story was immediately treated as another near-mythical tale of tragedy: the godlike young athlete untimely taken as he is about to soar toward the sun. Initial accounts of his death reinforced these pleasant illusions: he was a perfect young man, a poet, a churchgoer, an inspiration and model for other youths and his college teammates.
It is no disservice to Bias to suggest that his story and example provide lessons that lie in harsh reality, not myth. Less than a week after his sudden death, hardly anyone connected with it looks good -- not the University of Maryland, his teammates, the college athletic establishment, the police. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the truth is the last thing they seem to have wished to face.
In his last semester, Bias was enrolled in five courses and passed none. He withdrew from two and failed three others. What does this say about scholastic standards there and the way superstar athletes are treated? The reality, of course, is that, at Maryland and other major institutions, star athletes are treated as commercial commodities, not students.
His teammates have drawn a veil of silence over the episode, abetted, it appears by their coach, who reportedly advised them how to respond to questions about the case. More disturbing is that those in the dormitory where Bias died have refused to be interviewed about what really happened there.
Inexplicably, even police accepted that situation, maintaining that they cannot question those young men because their attorneys will not permit it. This occurred although police immediately judged the death "suspicious," Bias was reported to have ingested cocaine, a "white substance" was found in his car and a possible criminal investigation was under way. Given these facts and yesterday's official finding that he died of "cocaine intoxication," why were those who refused to cooperate with the official investigation not held as material witnesses until statements were taken?
None of these facts detracts from the tragedy; they reinforce it. They cry out for the truth about his case to be known and its larger lessons understood by the widest possible audience. If and when that is done, Bias undoubtedly will be seen not as unique but as a victim of circumstances beyond his making and control.
Does anyone want to grapple with that greater meaning? Ironically, the poet Auden concluded in the negative when he addressed that question and related it to the ancient tale of the boy who flew too high:
Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing in the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing: a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.