The harder we search for the answers that will satisfactorily explain Lenny Bias' death, the more troubling are the questions we find.
How widespread is drug use among University of Maryland athletes?
What are the academic standards the university's athletes are held to?
Has the allure of big-time college athletics corrupted the university?
Bias' death and the revelations about his most recent past have focused particular attention on these issues and on the role of the coach, the athletic director and the chancellor of the university. To what degree, if any, are they responsible for the behavior and citizenship of their athletes?
Surely we can agree that such a tragic death should not be peculiar to the University of Maryland, that it could happen on any college campus. And surely we can assume that a 22-year-old man, with four years of college behind him, should be discerning enough to know right from wrong, legal from illegal. Bias paid the ultimate price for choosing wrongly, and his legacy is the terrible lesson that even one mistake can be one too many.
A prosecutor who seems to know an election issue from a cheese sandwich has said the magic words: grand jury. Bias' teammates, some of whom have already retained legal counsel, will likely be instructed to testify, as will Bias' coach, Lefty Driesell. Much to Driesell's chagrin -- but perhaps not to his surprise -- drug use likely will be sorrowfully admitted by some Maryland players. Any major coach will tell you, it's a risky business. Ask one if he thinks that his players use drugs, and he will likely say: no. But then ask him if he would be surprised if they had ever taken drugs, and again he will likely say: no.
Who knows what slow beast slouches toward us on this grand jury road? Will there be sufficient scandal to force the chancellor, John B. Slaughter, to shut down the program, a la Tulane and San Francisco, and fire the coach and A.D.? Or will we see random, isolated incidents -- regrettable, but unpreventable in the larger societal context?
What are we to make of Bias' last semester grades: three Fs, two courses he withdrew from? Zero credits. Was it coincidence that he seemed to lose interest in school when his athletic eligibility elapsed? He was still a student, eating in the dining halls, sleeping in the dorm. What was he there for? What were his academic advisers telling him? Are coaches and administrators who talk lovingly about academics merely giving lip service? Allegedly the difference between the NBA and the university is that the university purports to educate students. How many other Maryland athletes blow off school like that?
Scholarship athletes are, by and large, admitted into colleges under lesser academic criteria than regular students. Their purpose on campus is to help the university make money and win games. The more games you win, the more money you can make. Academics is a separate issue. Coaches and A.D.s, too, are on campus to make money and win games. They're not on campus when they don't; they're fired. Platitudes aside, the business of athletic departments is winning.
Where are the college administrators -- the chancellors and presidents -- in all this? Usually in a box seat. They're also in the business of making money for the university. And it is this pervasive greed by all concerned that has made big-time college athletics the ravenous monster that lurks at our door. When a university selects students with combined regard for academic, athletic and civic accomplishments, it is likely to get responsible student-athletes, kids who aren't just looking for the next party. When a university selects students who are responsible only to the development of their athletic skill, it is more likely to get someone with a greater potential for trouble.
The compact between school and athletes in most big-time programs is clear: You perform on the court, we'll cover you off it. If an athlete is held only to a minimum academic standard for purposes of retaining eligibility, then he will perform only to that minimum standard and will recognize the university for the hustle it is engaged in. To the degree Maryland allows its athletic tail to wag its academic dog, everybody -- from Slaughter, through the athletic director, Dick Dull, to Driesell -- is responsible for any internal decay.
Because of Driesell's prominence and uniqueness, because for so many years he has dominated the Maryland basketball program, his behavior in this will be questioned. What did he know, and when did he know it? What exactly did he say when he gathered his team in those first hours after Bias' death? How much has he seen, and how much has he cared not to see?
Driesell is a loyal, passionate man. He has loved his players like a father would, and like a father, that love has, at times, blinded him. Over the years his players have taken advantage of that love, used it to circumvent the rules. Yet even when they shamed him publicly, Driesell defended them, put his arms around them paternally, shielded them, and took the abuse as if it were his own. His errors in judgment -- such as his obstruction in the Herman Veal matter -- are as large and bald as the man himself. But he made them out of love for his players.
He has seen Owen Brown die of a heart defect and Chris Patton die of Marfan syndrome. He has seen Adrian Branch and Steve Rivers convicted of drug possession and John Lucas' NBA career ruined by cocaine. He has seen Veal accused of sexual misconduct, and Larry Gibson of breaking and entering. These are all his players, and he loves them. Now Leonard Bias, his greatest player, is dead from cocaine.
Lefty Driesell is from the old school. He is the kind to face adversity, to stare it down, hitch up his pants and keep on chugging. Just when you think you have him pinned is when you merely have him angry. But it would not shock me if this time he has had enough, if this time his heart is broken, if this time he hitches up his pants and achingly walks away.