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Ex-UCLA Football Star Don Rogers Dies Suddenly : Commentary : Another Young Athlete Passes, and the Whispers Are Deadly

Times Sports Editor

A prominent young athlete dies, and the whispers begin immediately. The whisperers use familiar words that stem from familiar assumptions.

Drugs. Overdose.

Last week, the prominent young athlete was named Len Bias. He had just completed his basketball eligibility at the University of Maryland and was about to sign a lucrative contract with the Boston Celtics. Then Bias used cocaine, which caused his heart to stop working.

His future was the stuff of dreams, his present a coroner’s report.

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This week’s prominent young athlete was named Don Rogers. He was a sensational defensive back at UCLA a couple of years ago, the kind you noticed immediately and the kind that everybody noticed enough to make him an All-American. He had gone on to become a star defensive back with the Cleveland Browns, but Friday morning in Sacramento, he was taken to a hospital in an unconscious state, and Friday afternoon he died.

His future was the stuff of dreams, his present a coroner’s report.

It took a day or so for Bias’ coroner’s report to establish the use of drugs as the cause of death. It will take about the same amount of time for Rogers’ coroner’s report to establish the cause of death.

But long before the report from Sacramento is official, the familiar assumptions will be filed away in the minds of many. The newspaper stories that report no preliminary findings of drug use will bring knowing nods and cynical snickers. The cause of Rogers’ death will be written in the minds of many well before the cause of his death is written on his death certificate.

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And while that is sad, it is also understandable. There are trends here in sports, if not in drug deaths then certainly in drug use. So much has happened before that it is hard to think it won’t happen again. If you watch three cats run across a busy intersection at rush hour and all three get hit by a car, you have pretty low expectations for cat No. 4.

Drugs are making a mess of sports. They are taking all the fun out of it. The dealers who give the stuff to the athletes and the athletes who take it are turning an American character builder into an American character flaw. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are becoming the joy of not caring.

The sensible parents of the ‘80s will take their 6-foot 4-inch, 230-pound sons and send them off to piano lessons. Marching in a straight line and playing the tuba at the same time will become a more safe and sane test of strength and dexterity.

Al Davis, managing general partner of the Raiders, spoke here Friday at a luncheon of the Associated Press Sports Editors as part of the group’s national convention. When he was asked about drugs in the NFL, Davis said: “I think we are close to a genocide of our young people.”

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Three hours later, one of the NFL’s young people was dead. How ironic Davis’ statement will be if, indeed, there turns out to be some connection between Rogers’ death and drugs.

There are more than 150 of the nation’s sports editors here, and as the Rogers’ story became known and circulated, the familiar assumptions came easily. These are people who are trained and paid to establish the facts of things before they print them, and while speculating informally with peers and publishing officially for readers are two vastly different things, the familiar assumptions did, indeed, come easily.

A Cleveland TV station reported that drugs were in some way involved in Rogers’ death, and a Sacramento TV station reported what the Cleveland station had reported. Neither apparently had a lot of hard facts. For both, the familiar assumptions apparently came easily.

A Times reporter, attempting to talk to acquaintances gathered at the Rogers’ home in Sacramento Friday night, was able to talk only to some of the neighbors. All were saddened by the death of such a talented young man with such a bright future. And for almost all, the familiar assumptions about the cause of his death came easily.

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By today or Sunday, it is likely that the autopsy will be completed and official reports will be filed. Then the public will know what caused Don Rogers’ death.

And if it turns out to be a natural cause, a heart attack or a malady dealt to Rogers by God, rather than by a drug dealer, there will be almost a sigh of relief in the world of sports.

It will be a serious setback for the familiar assumptions, which are currently--and sadly--on a roll.

Staff writer Mark Gladstone contributed to this story.

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