In "Porgy and Bess," the oily and evil Sportin' Life gives the lovely and innocent Bess her first taste of cocaine and lures her from Catfish Row in Charleston to Harlem in New York. Porgy, the cripple, cannot bear that his Bess is gone. Determined to get her back, he gets into his goat cart and is slowly pulled along the stage. "Which way New York?" he asks, and with that breaks the heart of anyone who has ever seen the show.
The Faustian theme of the enticement of beauty or talent by evil is as old as theater itself. In the movies of the 1930s and '40s, the locale shifted to the prizefighting ring, where the mob-affiliated blonde lured some naive palooka from the straight and narrow. In those movies, the "dope" was either sex or social standing, but either way, our hero was hooked. Not just cocaine is addictive.
But it was cocaine that killed Len Bias, the all-America basketball player from the University of Maryland. His death was tragic, shocking. He had been drafted by the Boston Celtics; he had signed a contract to endorse Reebok shoes. In a short time, he would have been a millionaire -- a golden boy as golden as any portrayed in the movies. Like most of the old flicks, this real-life one ended with tears.
Almost immediately, the media assembled a posse to catch the culprit, pointing fingers everywhere but at Bias himself. It was the University of Maryland, some said. The school has failed to inculcate in Bias the proper values. Others said the culprit was the commercialization of college athletics -- the emphasis on winning at all costs. Bias was a poor student, yet Maryland allowed him to play. At some schools, Vince Lombardi's mindless dictum that winning is the only thing should rightly be etched in Latin over the field house.
Some blamed an educational system that exploits all athletes, particularly black ones. Pampered and patronized from high school on, these athletes are educated to play ball and, often, nothing else. Even the celebrated return to minimum academic standards for athletic eligibility (usually a C average) is an example of inverted values. Regardless of why adults favor the standards, kids can conclude that athletics remain the ultimate goal. A minimal amount of studying, like practice itself, is something you have to do to get on the court.
And, of course, an abstraction called "society" also comes in for blame when such an athlete as Bias dies. Drugs infest some black communities. They have become a plague, a contemporary version of some medieval scourge. Drugs claim their victims, debilitate whole communities, fertilize criminality and, with the huge profits they generate, produce role models -- the pushers -- whose effect is always pernicious, often fatal.
Each of these culprits is guilty as charged. Yet there is something both insulting and patronizing to Len Bias in fingering everyone and everything but him. It was Bias, after all, who took the drugs. It was Bias who knew he was breaking the law, that cocaine is addictive, sometimes fatal. That Bias must have thought his "crime" inconsequential and the chances of death ridiculously low is, alas, irrelevant. He died.
If Len Bias did not turn out to be a role model for others in life, then he can be that in death. With no disrespect, it ought to be said that he bears a responsibility for his own fate. To say otherwise is to give the impression that he and other athletes -- especially black ones -- are too dumb to know what they are doing, that society has to construct a cocoon for them -- that they are exceptions to the rule that we are all accountable for what we do. When it comes to drugs, individual accountability may be our most potent weapon.
Certainly, drugs ought to be eliminated (don't hold your breath) and an amateur athletic system polluted by greed and alumni yahooism should be reformed. But essentially, there is nothing new about the Len Bias story. Cocaine is the reason Bess went off with Sportin' Life, and as the movies have shown us, there have always been enticements for athletes no matter what their race -- money, blondes, entree into society.
Len Bias is dead because Len Bias took drugs. Blame everybody and everything, if you will, but don't fail to blame him too. The lives of countless kids depend on it.