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Published Sunday, May 14, 2000 in The Black World Today
McCaffrey on 'Weed':
Drug Czar’s 1998 Washington Post Op Ed Implied - On No Apparent Evidence - Several NBA Players Had Pot 'Addiction'
by Dennis Hans
 
Generally, pro-drug messages during pro sports broadcasts outnumber anti-drug messages by 8 or 10 to 1. But Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey and his loyal ally, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, achieved a remarkable 2-to-1 ratio Sunday, Feb. 6, in the second game of an NBA doubleheader on NBC. Four beer commercials were almost balanced by two warnings about marijuana, long regarded by McCaffrey and the Partnership as Public Enemy No. 1.

I say “marijuana,” even though that word was not mentioned in either public service announcement (PSA). McCaffrey and the Partnership, demonstrating their “street cred,” opted for the slang term “weed.”

Why was it so important to deliver two hits of the “anti-weed” message during the Sacramento Kings vs. Philadelphia 76ers game? This is pure Colombian conjecture, but it could be related to the leaders of the respective teams, all-stars Chris Webber and Allen Iverson. According to a McCaffrey op ed column in the Sept. 30, 1998 Washington Post, titled “A Clean and Sober NBA,” early in their careers they were among a handful of players who likely succumbed to drug “addiction.”

“According to some estimates,” wrote McCaffrey, “as many as 70 percent of NBA players may be current drug users. Marijuana, which players can use with impunity from league sanctions because it is not prohibited under the existing NBA rules, accounts for the bulk of this use (making it routine for players to build an addiction bad enough to run afoul of the law before their problem receives attention).” 

McCaffrey didn’t “name names,” but sports fans knew who he was talking about, just as yuppies would know who he meant if he had made the accusation against “the cast of Friends” without divulging their names. The incidents of NBA players running “afoul of the law” over marijuana have been so few — and thoroughly reported in the sports media — that fans would know McCaffrey had fingered Webber, Iverson, Robert Parish, Mookie Blaylock, Marcus Camby and Isaiah Rider. McCaffrey’s use of the word “routine” thus implied that most or all of them were marijuana addicts. 

I am unaware of any of these players acknowledging a problem with — let alone an “addiction” to — marijuana.

Who are the “NBA Six”? 

Chris Webber is a conscientious young man who, unlike Michael Jordan, abandoned a lucrative Nike contract because the company wouldn’t make its marquee sneakers affordable to poor families. An avid collector of the manuscripts of Frederick Douglass’s speeches and other artifacts of the freedom struggle, Webber was recently featured in an NBA Black History Month PSA reading a Langston Hughes poem. Webber was acquitted of pot possession, and to my knowledge has never admitted smoking, let alone being addicted to, marijuana.

Allen Iverson is an artist and a doting father to his kids. He told John Thompson, an NBA analyst who was Iverson’s college coach at Georgetown, that he sees himself as a “good guy” and it’s important to him that others see him in that light (WTBS interview, Feb. 21).  Iverson also happens to be an electrifying athlete and the league’s second leading scorer. He comes to play. Every night. Always has.

Robert Parish, who retired two years ago, played more NBA seasons than anyone in history. He was a consumate professional and an acknowledged pot smoker. The two are not mutually exclusive, and “pot smoker” is not synonymous with “pot addict.” 

Mookie Blaylock, who is among the league leaders in steals every season, is another consumate pro. 

Marcus Camby is a talented center-forward and shot-blocking machine.  His game was somewhat erratic early in his career, but that’s quite common among young players. It is not proof positive of pot addiction.

Isaiah Rider, is a fierce competitor and a consistent scorer who’s had his share of run-ins with coaches. He’s been fined for missing practices and flights and for spouting off at teammates. Was he a marijuana addict? If so, he was the most intense marijuana addict in history. 

Let us set aside the question of whether heavy, long-term use of marijuana can result in physical addiction, like alcohol or heroin, as some experts claim, or merely psychological dependence. (Even the hawkish Partnership, at www.drugfreeamerica.org, is careful to apply the latter term to pot and “addiction” to alcohol.) Let us ask instead, What characterizes the hardcore pothead? Laziness, lack of ambition, respiratory problems like those of cigarette smokers and disinterest in one’s physical appearance are common characteristics. Do those describe any of the NBA Six at the time of their run-in with the law over pot?

What evidence existed in 1998 that any of the NBA Six had been hooked?  If the NBA had such evidence, it was (and is) confidential. How did McCaffrey acquire it? If it didn’t exist, on what legitimate basis did he judge them to be drug addicts? And why didn’t the Post’s editorial page editors ask McCaffrey for proof? Is Bill Clinton’s drug czar so powerful that he can tar pro athletes as addicts on no apparent evidence and not be challenged by seasoned editors at a major national newspaper?

SIDEBAR  McCaffrey protects Big Booze — to the delight of the NBA and NBC

In his op ed column ironically titled “A Clean and Sober NBA” (Washington Post, Sept. 30, 1998), Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey never once allowed the word “alcohol” to parse his lips. While he stuck mostly to the generic term “drug,” a careful reading indicates McCaffrey did not wish the reader to think of alcohol — an “official sponsor” of the NBA, an industry with political clout and America’s most abused mind-altering drug — when he said the dreaded “D” word. Just as his boss has explained when sex is not sex, our drug czar tells us when a drug is not a drug.

McCaffrey alluded to (though did not cite) a controversial New York Times story of Oct. 26, 1997, “NBA’s Uncontrolled Substance,” when he wrote, “According to some estimates, as many as 70 percent of NBA players may be current drug users. Marijuana, which players can use with impunity from league sanctions because it is not prohibited under the existing NBA rules, accounts for the bulk of this use....”

What the Times actually alleged in its tendentious report was that 60 to 70 percent of players “smoke marijuana and drink excessively.” The Times did not claim that 60 to 70 percent “smoke marijuana excessively and drink.” So despite the misleading title of the article, the Times was saying that alcohol accounts for the bulk of NBA drug use. In the story’s fine print, Knicks forward Buck Williams (now retired) stated the obvious truth: “Alcohol is a much larger problem [in the league] than marijuana.”

NBA Commissioner David Stern disputed the Times report, and rightly so. The estimates of pot smoking and excessive drinking were ridiculously high, even for the “young male” demographic to which the players belong, which has the highest rates of substance use and abuse.  But the important point is that McCaffrey ignored allegations of rampant abuse of the drug alcohol and chose instead to focus on allegations of widespread use of the drug marijuana, allegations which he then exaggerated and distorted to reach this apparently baseless conclusion:  It is “routine for players to build an addiction [to marijuana] bad enough to run afoul of the law before their problem receives attention.”

McCaffrey is not the “Illegal Drug Czar” (though it has a nice ring).  He is the “Drug Czar,” and the official “No. 1 Goal” of the government’s National Drug Control Strategy is to “Educate and enable America’s youth to reject illegal drugs, as well as alcohol and tobacco.” It’s not his job to protect Big Booze.

As McCaffrey claims to be concerned about the messages our impressionable youth receive about drugs, he might be interested in the messages a typical NBA telecast delivers about the mind-altering drug most likely to kill or hook both teens and adults. Several months before he penned his Post column, I charted the NBC telecast of the Chicago Bulls vs. the Utah Jazz (Jan. 25, 1998) and recorded the following in a widely rejected essay, “The NBA-NBC Happy Hour”:

• 10 beer commercials: 3 Budweiser spots featuring those lovable lizards, 3 whacky Miller Lite spots produced by “Dave,” 2 Icehouse spots featuring gruff Coach Lou, and 2 Milwaukee Best spots urging viewers to — I’m not making this up — “Unleash the beast”;

• 2 NBC announcements that “The NBA on NBC is brought to you by Miller Lite, who remind you that anything can happen at Miller Time” (no irony intended);

• 1 NBC announcement that “The NBA on NBC is brought to you by Budweiser”;

• 1 “Let’s take a look at the Miller Lite halftime statistics” announcement by Bob Costas;

• 1 “Miller Genuine Draft presents ‘Even More Basketball’” spot — a 15-20-second highlight package of key plays in the game, narrated by analyst Isiah Thomas, followed by a voice-over reminder that Miller “will donate $1,000 to the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund.”

A genuinely “clean and sober” NBA (and NBC) would replace those beer commercials with PSAs promoting both abstinence and carefully defined “responsible drinking.” Some PSAs would feature hoop stars who explain how they live fun-filled lives without alcohol. Other PSAs would feature hoop stars explaining what “safe-drinking limits” are and how they monitor the light-to-moderate drinking they enjoy so they don’t, over time, develop a problem. (Those limits, according to the government, are no more than two drinks per day for men under 65, no more than one for men over 65 and all adult women except those who are pregnant, who must abstain completely.) 

Still other PSAs would remind teens that alcohol is a DRUG, and that the earlier they start using any drug, the greater the risk of abuse or addiction. 

Such an effort would cost the filthy-rich network and league some revenues, and it would anger the alcohol industry. With ten percent of beer drinkers consuming 50 percent of the beer, it’s critical to the robust health of Big Booze that heavy drinkers think of themselves as moderate drinkers and thus keep imbibing at their risky rate. But it would be the right thing to do. By advocating such an effort, McCaffrey and his boss could begin to make amends for years of service to Big Booze.

Dennis Hans is a freelance writer, an occasional adjunct professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, and a basketball shooting guru in search of clients. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada), and online at Mother Jones and Working Assets, among other outlets. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu

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