A whole bunch of big-shot sports people came running to the White House the other day to meet with the president. The desperate way things are going for the Gipper, you half-expected him to ask each league to sponsor an MX missile. Maybe the NFL could plant an MX in Too Tall Jones' cowboy boots, or maybe Saskatoon would take a silo in a deal for an NHL franchise.
Or maybe, if he played his cards right, President Reagan could wangle a low-interest loan from Moses Malone to balance the budget.
The president met with commissioners, player representatives, security men, lawyers and general managers. They came from football, basketball, baseball, soccer, indoor soccer, women's golf, tennis and hockey.
The idea was to enlist sports' help in Reagan's war on drugs. "A total blitz at the problems," a spokesman said. The blitzers met with Reagan and his wife, who is active in the president's "federal strategy against drug abuse and trafficking."
So far, that strategy has been to arrest lots of people on boats in Florida. The strategy's greater reach includes letting everyone know how bad drugs are for them. The Reagan administration, as John Madden might put it, believes the best defense is a good offense. Not only is the administration handcuffing the sellers of drugs, it wants to dry up the marketplace. It wants would-be customers to know what Don Reese knows: "Cocaine is the devil on this Earth."
With the good intention of education, the White House asked sports people to pitch in. "It's a promotional campaign," a spokesman said, "with a poster series, bumper stickers, halftime interviews, talk-show guests, public service announcements."
Asked why the president wanted sports involved, the spokesman said, "Because athletes are heroes to many people."
At that moment, there arrived a sense of disappointment because now the White House, like too many parents, is asking athletes to be more than working people with working people's problems. Athletes might be heroes, just as a Metro bus driver might be a hero, or as a policeman might be. For a president who grew up reading Frank Merriwell's fictional sports miracles and admitted, "I'm a sucker for hero worship," the use of athletes as heroes is natural. It also is a confusion of values.
All a 95-mph fast ball says of a fellow is that his arm is pretty strong.
Use athletes as people, Mr. President.
The White House guest list included top brass from every league in the country. Because sports is so visible, these leagues will deliver the president's message on drugs. That's nice.
But wouldn't it be more effective if, say, Don Reese came on television and said what he did on the telephone not long ago?
"I have been to hell and made it out," said the former Miami Dolphin who went to jail for selling cocaine. Reese this summer wrote a frightening confession of his drug problem for Sports Illustrated. Because he also revealed he violated terms of his probation, Reese will return to jail in January although he completed a drug rehabilitation program and says, "What I want to do now is thank the Lord for saving me, and I want to tell high school kids about it."
It's nice that Bowie Kuhn and Larry O'Brien want to help out, but the president should have invited Bob Welch, Tim Raines and Darrell Porter, Tommy Kramer, George Rogers and Chuck Muncie. These men can speak of drug and alcohol problems, not as heroes, but as real people who have been there. Anyone who has read George Vecsey's book on Welch knows the stark terror that was the everyday life of the Dodger pitcher, and yet Tommy Lasorda, Welch's manager, can say, "Welch wasn't a drinker." Then he named, as a real drunk, one of his outfielders, saying, "I'm walking at 2 o'clock one night, and a block ahead I see somebody fall down in the intersection. I figure it's a heart attack. I look down and it's my outfielder. He looks up and says, 'I can play center field better than anybody you got.' "
We all laughed, sure, because the falling-down drunk is a comic figure as long as we don't think too far down the road the guy is staggering on. "Alcoholic psychosis," said crackerbarrel philosopher Kin Hubbard, "is nothin' more or less'n than ole DTs in a dinner suit."
Welch has done public service announcements for Alcoholics Anonymous. His message is, "You don't have to die for a drink."
Or die for a pill, or some white stuff. It is precisely because people make athletes into heroes that athletes are slow to learn such lessons. Their extraordinary physical abilities give them free movement through life. Everyone pampers them, flatters them, forgives them their excesses -- all done with a bow to the heroics of a 95-mph fast ball or a 95-yard touchdown run.
Score 25 a game, kid, and you don't have to answer to society. Score your 25, score some coke. Too many athletes, given a free ride too long, get too rich too soon and say yes too many times because they've never learned to say no. Don Reese wanted the easy thrill; John Lucas said his grandmother and an old coach died, depressing him, and he wanted a way out of the reality, and somewhere right now there is a high school kid scoring 25 a game who ought to hear from John Lucas, once a free-riding quote-hero-unquote.
Lucas last year admitted to a cocaine problem. He went to a rehabilition clinic. But twice this season, Lucas has missed practice; the Bullets' coach, Gene Shue, has demoted him to third string. Whether the missed practices are symptoms of a drug problem, only John Lucas knows.
"If this pattern continues," said a Bullets' executive, "maybe we would be doing John a favor by cutting him. They say, with a drug problem, that you have to change your life style. Maybe a guy would be better off not playing basketball and being out from under that pressure."
John Lucas is no Frank Merriwell; he's a working man trying to get through life, and it isn't any easier for him than for us.