On June 19, 1986, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of what medical authorities called "cocaine intoxication."
Mr. Bias' death in a college dormitory, only hours after he was drafted by the Boston Celtics, hit the College Park campus with tremendous force. This week, five years after the stunning news of the young man's death, the aftershocks are still felt.
Much of the attention focused on the university has involved personalities. But the persistence of problems in the athletic department, even as the people changed, suggests that the real difficulties are systemic and structural, having to do with the way sports are paid for and how they are defined within a university.
Except for the occasional outbursts of its colorful basketball coach, Charles G. "Lefty" Driesell, College Park had seemed a fairly restrained expression of intercollegiate athletic mania. Alumni athletic boosters pointed out proudly that the school had escaped censure, or even investigation, by the governing National Collegiate Athletic Association.
But the death of a superstar made this confidence seem like complacency. An aspiring and quietly achieving university would endure an athletic scandal which seemed to have no end.
A grueling five-month examination of the sports program at College Park began when reporters learned that Mr. Bias had hardly been a student at all during his final semester. While at games and tournaments, Maryland basketball players missed 40 percent of their classes that spring. Some Maryland athletes had been admitted despite high school records which seemed to show they were not able to do college-level work. They were then nursed through a smorgasbord of courses which had no clear objective other than maintaining athletic eligibility.
Few of these revelations should have been surprising to fans who were paying attention to the world of intercollegiate sports. What had coaches and university administrators done, prior to Len Bias' death, to address the system's problems?
In a sense, the answer was: nothing. The protective, reform impulse was there but it was often overwhelmed by the program's momentum and success. The dominant instinct at College Park, as at many universities, was to imagine immunity. The inclination to think of these problems as "isolated incidents" allowed many to deny what had become endemic in the intercollegiate system. Universities were like a cocaine user learning of a friend's death: well, he doesn't have the constitution I have; or, well, he was using much stronger stuff than I'm using. A university would tend to go on getting high on athletic money and emotion until it hit bottom. That occurred at College Park on June 19, 1986.
A report prepared for the University of Maryland Board of Regents a year earlier cited some problems in the athletic department but in general gave Maryland athletics passing marks. The university's chief operating officer then, John B. Slaughter, had not been entirely reassured by this report.
He was a member of the NCAA Presidents Commission, a group of 44 chancellors and presidents who had begun trying to make important changes in the way intercollegiate sports were run. Many school had been shamed by sports-related catastrophes such as recruiting violations, altered grades, gambling and low graduation rates for athletes.
Something similar could occur at Maryland easily enough, Dr. Slaughter had said in an interview published on June 5, 1985, a year before Len Bias' death.
"Athletics are so big and have so many aspects there's no way anyone can be sure he's on top of it all. . . . Not anywhere. Athletics is big money, and unless you manage your athletic program, it can sink you," he said.
It was a lesson that few in big time college sports wanted to learn -- or, perhaps, could afford to learn. They needed the money sports earned. Before Mr. Bias' death, Chancellor Slaughter had gone to work on the problems he knew were present at Maryland, including a low graduation rate on the basketball team and meaningless courses for athletes. He also wanted to end freshman eligibility for varsity sports. He would confess later that his efforts were not sufficiently aggressive.
Almost five years of additional pain and lingering scandal have followed and the same questions must be asked of the program at Maryland:
What has been done to bring the program under control, to restore the university's good name, to safeguard its students and to re-connect sports with the values so often invoked to defend them? Despite the continuing problems, the answer is: quite a lot.
The most striking and telling changes have occurred among those who ran the university and its athletic enterprise. Virtually all of the faces are new. Chancellor Slaughter is now president of Occidental College in Los Angeles. Lefty Driesell coaches at James Madison University in Virginia, and the coach who replaced him is gone as well. Two athletic directors have departed since Mr. Bias' death.
Change in the post-Bias years has been characterized in terms of personalities. This is so, inevitably, because the soap opera quality of sports make them the most public aspect of university life for the wider community.
Much more has changed on the campus, however, and much of that change has been a direct result of the tumult of 1986.
Stricter rules now govern the admission of athletes who do not meet the usual standards -- strict enough to produce whining from the coaches who say speed on the field and speed in the classroom are not necessarily compatible. Linda Clements, the director of admissions, has made it clear that she looks carefully at an athlete's transcripts.
Despite the changes, a Maryland graduate suggested recently in a letter to The Sun that his alma mater's athletic problems presented a fine opportunity to drop intercollegiate athletics altogether. Another Terp alumnus responding in the same forum said the talk of abolishing sports was horribly misguided. Syracuse and Virginia, he said, make it clear that academic integrity is not inevitably undermined by a drive for athletic championships. Since the letter was published, the programs at both Syracuse and Virginia have fallen under the cloud of scandal.
When Chancellor Slaughter forced out Mr. Driesell as basketball coach, he thought he had cleansed the basketball environment of its boastful insistence on victory. He hired an athletic director with the reputation of a reformer.
But within two years, both the new athletic director and the new coach hired to replace Mr. Driesell were gone after another round of scandals, this one resulting in NCAA penalties. The once proudly "straight arrow" program at Maryland is currently serving the final year of NCAA-imposed penalties for improper recruiting and payments to athletes, violations committed by Bob Wade, the coach Mr. Slaughter appointed to replace Mr. Driesell.
Frank DeFord, editor of The National, the sports newspaper which closed last week, says the problem is not so much people as structure, although surely those who believe in the rules and ++ in the values are preferable to those who adopt a more cynical attitude.
"We in the press like to find villains," Mr. DeFord told a congressional committee, "but the truth is there are no villains, just a lot of good people caught in a very bad system."
No one listens. More and more schools are caught in the cycle. Big-time sports demand big money -- which comes from victories in the NCAA basketball tournament or at football bowl games. Few attain these objectives. More than half the schools in Division 1A, the big time, face deficits in their athletic departments. About the same number have been hit with NCAA sanctions in recent years.
While the old ethic of sports-as-education persists, most programs are required to be businesses. Many public universities, including College Park, are required to have programs which are economically self-sufficient. We think of sports as part of university life, but we order them to survive in the marketplace. The pressure is not likely to subside.
At Maryland, five years after Mr. Bias' death, the deficit stands in the neighborhood of $3 million. The school still has three basketball coaches on its payroll: Mr. Driesell, Mr. Wade and Gary Williams, the incumbent.
Maryland was hammered by the NCAA for lack of "institutional lTC control" of its athletic program. Yet the school had gone through an exemplary demonstration of re-establishing control -- albeit belatedly after Mr. Bias' death. So much control had been exerted that financial supporters of the teams began to melt away, certain that reform made competition at the highest levels no longer possible.
When the NCAA ruled, no credit was given for the effort exerted at great personal and institutional cost. Universities will have little incentive to change, if their efforts to extricate themselves from the lacerating nettle of sports go unrecognized.
No one could expect a university to be fully successful in its reform efforts because each school is, after all, part of a larger system. One could leave that system (the NCAA) and invite the wholesale loss of supporters or stay and risk scandal and sorrow. After so much embarrassment, universities are still essentially overwhelmed by the money and emotion that are far more addicting and debilitating for an institution than cocaine.
The Knight Commission, which completed a major national study of intercollegiate sports this year, in effect called for the abolition of self-support requirements when it said, "Institutional funds can be spent on athletics programs. This will affirm the legitimate role of athletics on campus and relieve some of the pressure on revenue-producing teams to support non-revenue sports."
Jack Lengyel, athletics director at the U.S. Naval Academy, put it this way, "This is not an athletics problem. This is a mission problem where the institution has not accepted the athletics program as part and parcel of the educational objectives of the university."
"University presidents," the Knight commissioners said, "are the key to successful reform." No one can doubt that presidents must accept substantial responsibility for the integrity of their universities. They are not likely to achieve much success however until they can control finances.
"The fragile institution of the university," said the Knight Commission, "often finds itself unable to stand up against the commitment, the energy and the passion underlying modern intercollegiate athletics."
This was certainly true at College Park. No can say that any
individual administrator was responsible for the death of Leonard Kevin Bias. But he died in a threatening and risky environment, the perils of which were recognized and tolerated by virtually everyone. There had been a kind of desperate hoping that the vicious cross-currents of money and drugs and championships-at-all-costs could be endured without catastrophe. That desperate hoping continues among well-intentioned administrators and coaches across the country.
Fraser Smith reports on Maryland politics for The Sun. His book about the Bias tragedy and college basketball will be published this fall by Bancroft Press.