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Athletes Are on Front Line in Drug Fight

If the United States of America were under attack from a terrible enemy that was infiltrating the country through a half-dozen key ports and lining up our youth and destroying them systematically, what do you think the national response would be?

I’ll tell you: The country would be on a total war footing, lights would be burning late in Washington, bonds would be being sold, the Pentagon would be on red alert and factories would be churning out defense weapons by the boatload. Nobody would be counseling surrender.

Well, we are under siege. There is a terrible enemy at the gates. It has gained an insidious foothold. It is a greater threat to our country than Communism ever was. Hitler would never have gotten on our shores, but this invader already is here.

The enemy is a coalition, a combination of deadly forces, and it’s winning on all fronts. It’s an unholy alliance of cocaine, marijuana, codeine, heroin, speed and, yes, alcohol. When last seen, it was marching up the coast of Florida, it had New York and Los Angeles under siege, it appeared as unstoppable as the Wehrmacht --and a lot of people thought we should give up and let it in, i.e., legalize it, naturalize it, as it were.

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You can’t fight this enemy with tanks and guns. Courts are ineffectual. You can’t stop to read the rights to a man about to kill you. You can’t stop a cartel with a warrant.

But we do have the weapon that could turn the tide--education. This enemy cannot function in the light. It strikes in the dark.

That’s why a one-hour documentary on ABC Sunday at 4 p.m. PST, titled “Athletes and Addiction--It’s Not a Game,” is as important a counterattack in this war as the Battle of the Bulge was in its.

The brainchild of a network producer, Geoff Mason, a sports specialist who knows what he’s talking about--he once went through an entire Wimbledon tournament in such an alcoholic blackout he doesn’t remember a single lob, he acknowledges. An alumnus of the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Desert, Mason, who barely escaped capture and imprisonment in this war, has decided to warn the countryside.

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Athletes are the most visible victims in this war. The public will pay attention to their sad stories, where commercials showing frying eggs on a griddle may miss the point. Says Jim McKay, the sportscaster who wrote and narrates the addiction documentary: “They’re role models whether they want to be or not. What they do, a whole generation of kids copy.”

McKay’s documentary is a kaleidoscope of sports star addiction.

Derek Sanderson, once the highest-paid hockey player in the world, hits bottom when he becomes a derelict in Central Park, trying to steal a bottle of wine from another addict and, when being caught, demanding, “Don’t you know who I am?” and being told devastatingly, “Yeah, I know who you are--a bum just like me.”

There’s Tai Babilonia, pretty, gifted but terribly lonely and depressed, turning to a glass of wine to help her sleep, then a bottle, then a case, then a suicide attempt. These people pulled the rip cord just in time, but the show addresses the John Matuszaks, too--star athletes who crashed and died in free fall. Or free base.

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It also addresses the degree of difficulty in recovery. McKay says: “There’s a trap in which kids see apparently successful recoveries and say, ‘Oh, I see how this works. You do coke and then when they catch you, you go away for 28 days, rehab, and then come back where you left off none the worse.’ Well, it doesn’t work that way. The chances are you won’t do as well. And the recovery rate is not 100%--more like 50%, some say as low as 10%.”

McKay adds: “Athletes are treated as something special from childhood. They think they are immune to the laws which govern ordinary people. And, to be sure, they are encouraged to think so. We tell the story of the coach who finds cocaine in the high school kid’s locker but does nothing about it because the kid’s a star, and the coaches who call the rehab center and say, ‘When can we get Butch back? We need him!’ You know, the ordinary addict is warned not to go back to the same playgrounds, the same playmates or environment which got him into trouble in the first place. But the athlete has to go right back to the same locker room, the same stresses.”

The documentary shows the plight of the young high school athlete who has been at a treatment center for a year, after becoming an addict at 6 when his older brothers talked him into smoking pot in the family cellar. In this war, they bomb nurseries.

The war is far from won. It isn’t even stalemated. The enemy is advancing on all fronts.

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The ABC documentary is at least an attempt to show our unarmed forces what the foe looks like, what to look for--like those sessions where they showed air raid wardens the silhouettes of enemy fighters.

Any war effort requires first-rate intelligence. When you hear--and see--Chuck Muncie say, “In 1982, I scored 19 touchdowns, an NFL record; in 1989, I went to prison for . . . cocaine,” you get a better look at the enemy than any chart could give. When Steve Howe says, “In 1981, I was on top of the world with the world champion Dodgers; in 1983, I walked out on my wife, my newborn daughter and my teammates for a line of cocaine,” you know he’s in division strength.

You know you’re in a desperate war when the casualties mount up. The Betty Ford Center, where much of the documentary was filmed, has treated more than 15,000 addicts in its eight years. The success rate is high, but the wounded continue to pile up nationwide.

This documentary is at least an attempt to put a lantern in the Old North Church window, to turn Paul Revere loose. To delay any longer, this might be the first war we ever lost in our sleep.

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