Shock from Bias Death Reverberates After 5 Years People and Policies Have Changed Since Star's Death

June 16, 1991|By C. FRASER SMITH

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.

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