'Meat market'still remains


Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of the cocaine-related death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias.

And what have we learned?

Well, we've learned that cocaine isn't hip.

Back then, cocaine was the drug of choice for the rich and the powerful and for sensitive types who saw themselves as artists. Today, we see it as a dirty drug -- as filthy as heroin and almost as lethal.

We've also learned that the University of Maryland College Park isn't perfect. 'Nuff said.

And I suppose some few of us have come to realize that there is more to character than a young man's ability to score points under pressure.

"But," said William "Bucky" Lee, sadly, "it is still a meat market out there."

Lee coaches youths from 7 to 15 years old at the Oliver Recreation Center in East Baltimore. His teams have won the amateur state championships three years in a row and in each of those years they have been in the top 10 nationally.

"That's what I try to tell my kids, that it's a meat market," he continued. "I tell them that unless they prepare themselves, spiritually, academically and mentally as well as athletically, the system will chew them up and spit them out and give them nothing in return."

Added Benjamin DuBose, coach at the Madison Square Recreation Center, "We've got to send the message out that winning isn't everything. You can win in more ways than one. You've got to be prepared to win off the field as well as on the field.

"But let me tell you," he continued, "a lot of these colleges and a lot of these high schools are only preparing their athletes to win on the field."

"I'm telling you, we are losing some of our best and brightest young people," said Jean Fugett, a former professional football player with the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins who operates a sports management agency here.

"These athletes are not dummies but nobody is motivating them to perform in the classroom the way they perform on the field."

"Meat market" conjures powerful images: Of tender youngsters swinging on hooks, being treated like objects. Yet it seems an apt description of big-time college athletics where thousands of talented youngsters are sucked into the system by the lure of million-dollar salaries. Few come out with so much as a college degree and fewer still make it to the pros.

The thing that struck me most about Bias' sudden death was his vulnerability to all of the people and institutions and businesses that were prepared to feed off his talent.

Drug dealers offered him free samples. Financial institutions and businesses lent him money. The university not only ignored the fact that he was failing in school, it forced him into a practice and playing schedule that left him little time for class.

And Bias was one of the fortunate few. He had signed a six-figure endorsement contract with Reebok shoes and, just hours before he died, agreed to a pact with the National Basketball Association's Boston Celtics that could have netted him $1 million a year.

At the bottom of the talent pyramid are scores of men and women and schools that have made a lucrative trade out of identifying, recruiting and developing talented young players.

The best players in the country are invited to one basketball camp after another during the summer. High school coaches scout and recruit almost as vigorously as the major colleges. A talented teen-ager might well spend all of his free time, as well as a good proportion of his academic time, participating in one league after another.

As a result, a good player might finish four or five years of high school barely able to read on an elementary school level -- not because he is dumb, but because no one forced him to take the time to learn.

The recreation league coaches in East Baltimore now make it a point to monitor their youngsters' academic progress. If kids are having trouble in school, the coaches hook them up with tutors. If kids refuse to cooperate, they don't play.

But both DuBose and Lee say that not enough high school and college coaches do the same thing.

Len Bias certainly did not die in vain. His death spurred a number of serious attempts at reform.

But the most fundamental reform has yet to occur. Winning is still the bottom line. It is still a meat market.

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