America's national pastime is under siege by a snow-white narcotic that threatens to blacken the image of professional sports. Recent star-studded disclosures in Pittsburgh of apparent widespread use of cocaine by major-league baseball players are raising questions about how best to deal with the problem of drug addiction and abuse among professional athletes.
There is also the troubling issue of how much this may be influencing young people, an increasing percentage of whom apparently use cocaine. [See accompanying story on Page 4].
It remains to be seen whether heightened awareness of the cocaine problem will lead to tougher antidrug measures, such as mandatory random testing of players for narcotics use.
League officials maintain that adequate safeguards aimed at identifying and healing athletes with drug problems are now in place.
``We have said all along that baseball has a problem, we recognize that fact and we are doing what is necessary to solve it,'' says Chuck Adams, a spokesman for baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth. Commissioner Ueberroth has called drug abuse major league baseball's No. 1 problem.
Baseball is not alone. Drug abuse has also been a significant problem in the National Football League (NFL) and in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
``I think that if nothing else [the Pittsburgh trial] will be another reminder and a jolt to the players about [the dangers of drug abuse],'' says Larry Fleisher, general counsel of the NBA Players' Association.
Professional athletes are modern-day gladiators in sneakers and cleats earning six-figure and million-dollar salaries to belt home runs, sink hook shots, or snag touchdown passes. They are perceived as living in glory, wealth, and fame.
But a completely different view of the lives of pro athletes has been emerging in a Pittsburgh courtroom where Philadelphia caterer Curtis Strong and six other men faced charges that they regularly supplied cocaine to major-league baseball players.
The trial has made national headlines because of court testimony during which several major league players -- including Keith Hernandez, Lonnie Smith, Dale Berra, and Dave Parker -- admitted buying and using cocaine. The players, who were granted immunity from prosecution, also fingered others in the league as fellow drug users.
The trial is the largest single disclosure yet of apparent widespread drug abuse among sports stars.
In addition to these details, Willie Mays, Pete Rose, Willie Stargell, and Bill Madlock were mentioned in regard to possible involvement with amphetamines. Each has denied the accusations.
The Pittsburgh trial has given new life to the debate in the sports world over whether professional athletes should submit to random tests to ensure that they are not using drugs.
Proponents maintain that such tests would serve as a significant deterrent to drug use. They add that tests would afford league officials an accurate and up-to-date reading on how many of its players are using illicit narcotics and other chemical substances that may affect their performance on the field. Tests would also enable league officials to identify and, ideally, get help for players who have drug problems.
Opponents argue that mandatory tests would violate players' rights and be an invasion of their privacy. They say the majority of professional athletes who do not use drugs should not be forced to take the tests simply because of the problems of a few players.
The cocaine-sports issue underscores an unresolved dilemma in United States law enforcement: Should drug addicts be treated as criminals or as patients to be cured of their addiction?
In 1983, federal prosecutors sent four members of the Kansas City Royals -- including pitcher Vida Blue -- to prison on cocaine charges. But for the most part, drug abuse among professional athletes has been kept under wraps, with players, managers, and team owners preferring to handle individual problems quietly.
Last week, Chuck Muncie, a former New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers football star, announced his retirement from the game, citing ``too much pressure.'' Mr. Muncie had been suspended for the 1984 season after failing a Miami Dolphins drug test last year. He was trying to make a comeback this year with the Minnesota Vikings. But NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Muncie from Minnesota's season opener after he skipped his drug-therapy counselling sessions.
The pros may endure crushing tackles, flying elbows, and head-first collisions at home plate, but the occupational hazards that are most likely to lead to drug abuse, experts say, are associated with a dangerous combination outside the stadium: youth, big money, and celebrity.
``Athletes are more prone [to become cocaine addicts]. They have the money to immediately follow through with their inclinations,'' says Joseph Pursch, a California psychiatrist who treats professional athletes for drug and alcohol abuse. ``Since they are charismatic, and fascinating, and visible people, the supply [of illicit drugs] is literally being brought to them.'' Dr. Pursch adds, ``Nobody seeks out a plumber to give him cocaine, but a pitcher or a quarterback is different.''
There are no reliable statistics or studies on the extent of illicit drug use in professional sports. League officials cite confidentiality clauses in declining to release figures on the number of players entering drug treatment programs.
What is known is that a significant number of players have turned to narcotics in recent years, and that professional careers have been shortened because of it.
In major league baseball, most of the 26 teams have had players seriously involved in drugs. More than 200 professional football players are reported to have entered drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs since 1979. Since 1983, at least five NBA players have voluntarily asked to participate in the league's special drug treatment program.
``It is a problem that exists in all professional sports,'' says Charles Jackson, assistant director of security with the National Football League.
Some players argue that athletes are no more susceptible to drug abuse than stockbrokers, actors, or others in US society. They say that theirs is not a special case and that pro sports is simply a microcosm of America with all its problems.