NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — I did not know what cocaine was when this decade began. I had never seen a rock of crack. Steroids were something a crazy weightlifter might try. And no one I knew had been found dead on the highway, his blood full of alcohol.
I am a sports writer. I now know all those things. I have lost count of the funerals I have covered. The arrests blur together. Today is the last day of the decade, and I have to shake my head at the candidates for “Top Sports Story of the ’80s.” The Miracle On Ice? Joe Montana’s third Super Bowl? Jack Nicklaus winning one more Masters?
Maybe one of those should have been the big story. This is what was: Drugs. Hands down. The biggest story, the saddest story. It dominated the decade; it took everything we thought we knew and turned it on its ear.
I can still remember when Willie Wilson and several Kansas City Royals were sentenced to three months in prison in 1983 for attempting to purchase cocaine. The judge told Wilson he was letting down millions of fans. Mothers of children spit at his name. When Wilson left the courtroom he moaned:
“They’re making an example out of me.”
Now, six years later, Bob Probert, a Detroit hockey star with a history of arrests, is sentenced to three months in a rehab correctional facility — three months, same as Wilson — for trying to sneak 13 grams of cocaine across the U.S./Canadian border.
And already fans are counting the days until Probert can return to the Red Wings. “Hey, he did his time,” they claim. Amazing. At the start of the decade, we were trashing anyone who even tried the stuff. By the end we are forgiving a guy who tried to sneak it into the country in his underwear. Bias, Johnson, Rogers, Skiles
Have we grown so jaded? Did the names Len Bias and Ben Johnson do such irreparable damage to our hearts? Or was it just the cumulative effect of all those headlines?
Once we figured being young, rich, and a terrific baseball pitcher would be enough for any red-blooded American. And then Dwight Gooden checked into a rehab clinic.
Once we figured college was full of fresh-scrubbed kids playing high on school spirit. And then Gary McLain admitted snorting cocaine the night Villanova beat Georgetown.
Once we thought the Olympics were a safe harbor for our dreams. And then Johnson failed his steroids test, and it seemed like half the Olympic athletes fell into the pit with him.
No moment was sacred. Len Bias was chosen second overall in the NBA draft.
Two days later he was dead. Stanley Wilson failed his drug test — the night before the Super Bowl. Don Rogers, a football star, died of cocaine. His younger brother, Reggie — who wept at the service — would later kill three teenagers while driving drunk.
White. Black. Old. Young. The story of the ’80s had no mercy. I remember going to the airport the morning after Michigan State lost in the NCAA basketball tournament. The players sat by the gate, chewing on cupcakes. They were just kids; they were due back on campus. Except Scott Skiles. He was going to jail. I had come to interview him.
I am a sports writer, I thought.
Why do I feel like a sheriff? Perfect athletes are just a myth
And it will not go away. Who figured to write stories such as these? What happened to our sports sections? They call it reality. The rich and famous — athletes included — have always found time for substance abuse. We simply didn’t always report it.
Miles Davis, the famous jazz trumpeter, who in between sets used to vomit in alleys, sick from heroin, described his addiction as “feeding the monster.” We in sports had a monster of our own. We craved gods.
We kept getting human beings.
Maybe that’s what the ’80s were all about, this lesson: that athletes, who soar above us when the ball is in play, are no better than your next-door neighbor when it comes to normal life. They bend. They break. They fall victim to temptation. And maybe we should stop looking their way as role models for our children, and look a little harder at ourselves.
The final major headline of 1989 was the death of a man who spent much of the decade embarrassing himself in drunken stupors. When they found him Christmas Day, inside his truck, by the gate of his farm, with his neck snapped, the tributes began to pour in. What a great baseball man he had been. How sad his death. But Billy Martin wasn’t buried because his baseball skills had faded. He was buried because his driver was drunk.
And another paragraph was added to The Story. We know about crack now. We know about Breathalyzers. We know about steroids and masking agents and urine tests. It is the end of the ’80s, New Year’s Eve, and it is astounding what the sports pages have taught us. I don’t know about you. Personally, I never wanted to be this smart.