Ridding sports of drug abuse

''Say it ain't so, Joe,'' a young fan pleaded with ''Shoeless'' Joe Jackson, professional baseball star of a bygone era. The player was one of several who had just been accused of having agreed to throw the 1919 World Series in a sorry gambling scandal.

Today few fans would be similarly naive in viewing this decade's spreading scandal in professional sports: drug abuse. None would ask if it were so.

For years reports, hard to substantiate, had popped up about use of illegal drugs by athletes in one sport or another. Now the long-simmering scandal finally has begun to boil, with admission or accusation of drug charges against several professional football players.

And professional sports has taken disciplinary action to root out drug abuse. Four players of the National Football League have been suspended for the first four games of the fall season; previously, the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club had fined a player for having had to attend for the second time a drug rehabilitation program.

This crackdown is overdue. Today's young fans, like yesterday's, idolize sports figures. Thus it is ethically and morally incumbent on all sports officials to root out drug abuse in two ways.

In the spirit of Christian charity they should aid individual users who seek to conquer their problem.

But those users who do not acknowledge a need to reform, and those who do not demonstrate progress, should be suspended until they have overcome their difficulty.

Of course sports officials have another reason to eliminate drug abuse among athletes: it harms their performance. No drugs equals better prospects of a team victory.

And the effort to root out drug use must extend far beyond sports-for-pay. Use of prescription drugs in sports at all levels - including high school - needs to be examined carefully. Too often team trainers and physicians prescribe drugs to mask injuries and enable players to compete, in a win-at-all-cost approach at the risk of harm to the individual.

This can cause players to conclude it is acceptable to take drugs to help them do well in games - and that it must be all right to consume alcohol or use marijuana or cocaine to ''relax'' before games.

The need to consider alcohol in this connection must be stressed. Especially at the high school level its use and abuse by athletes is immense and too often tolerated by adults. This can pave the way for later use of wholly illegal drugs.

The sports community should continue current efforts to clean out drug use - and then remain vigilant against a return.

But the responsibility is not limited to the sporting world. The considerable use of cocaine - professional sports' most frequently abused drug today - in other areas of society also needs to be exposed and eliminated.

Drug users must realize that they do not have to ''escape'' challenges through illegal substances, but that these problems instead can be overcome with the help of friends, family, and a deep religious faith. This is a far better solution - for society as well as the individual.

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