The cocaine overdose of University of Maryland superstar basketball player Len Bias prompted changes not only in the world of collegiate athletics, but in the United States in general. Bias’s death at age led to national discussion about drug abuse and motivated the U.S. Congress to enact massive changes in drug policy.
Bias was the undeniable star of the University of Maryland’s 1986 basketball team. He was Maryland’s all-time leading scorer and a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. He was also the second-overall draft pick in the 1986–1987 draft, signing with the Boston Celtics as their number one pick.
Bias collapsed in his dormitory room on June 19, 1986, at approximately 6:30 A.M. He and friend Brian Tribble, as well as teammates Terry Long and David Gregg, had been having a “cocaine party” in which “scoops” of cocaine were available to each. Bias had ingested a large amount of the drug and suffered three seizures before the paramedics arrived and pronounced him dead at 8:50 A.M. A subsequent search found nine grams of cocaine in Bias’s car. Long and Gregg were kicked off the team for the 1986–1987 season, and the loss of the three players resulted in the team enduring its worst season ever. Charges against Long and Gregg were dropped in exchange for their testimony against Tribble, who was acquitted in June 1987 of having provided Bias with the cocaine.
Immediately, allegations were made against Maryland coach Charles “Lefty” Driesell for tolerating drug use among his players and failing to uphold even the most minimal academic standards. Driesell had previously referred to cocaine as “performance enhancing.” Many accused the coach of recruiting athletes who were tremendously gifted athletically but who were very marginal academically. Although he resigned from the head coach position, Driesell went on to take the position of Assistant Athletic Director in charge of fundraising. He later coaches at James Madison University and Georgia State. He retired in 2003 and was named to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) vowed to better investigate the private lives of players who were suspected of drug abuse, a move that was contested by the player’s union. At the time, the NBA drug-tested athletes only when it had reason to believe they were using illegal substances. Many called on the league to institute more testing in the wake of Bias’s death.
Congress used the Bias case as a high-profile example of why tougher drug laws were needed. Democrats seized the opportunity to best Republicans and “get tough on crime” by enacting mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 required mandatory minimum sentences, ranging from 5 to 10 years, for those found with a specified amount of certain drugs.
- Finley, P., Finley, L., & Fountain, J. (2008). Sports scandals. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Neff, C., & Selcraig, B. (1986, November 10). One shock wave after another. Sports Illustrated Vault. Retrieved from http://www.si.com/vault/1986/11/10/114314/one-shock-wave-after-another-the-cocaine-death-of-len-bias-the-maryland-basketball-star-has-prompted-criticism-of-the-schools-athletic-policies—-and-last-week-led-to-coach-lefty-driesells-resignation
- Sterling, E. (n.d.). Drug laws and snitching: A primer. PBS Frontline. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/snitch/primer/