The NBA and the War on Drugs

Mariam Aiyad

In July, the NBA dismissed the Toronto Raptors’ rookie guard Jalen Harris for violating the league’s Anti-Drug Program. While reports never specified which “drug of abuse” Harris tested positive for, it is notable that he was not accused of using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to gain an unfair advantage over other players. The NBA targeted him for recreational usage. Harris’s dismissal does not reflect an attempt to promote fair competition; it stems from America’s regressive approach to drugs, which has all too often intersected with the ugly history of racial profiling in the NBA.

In the 1970s and 80s, Black athletes became more vocal and confident about their status in the NBA. Sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards anticipated this cultural shift in his seminal 1969 book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete. “The exploitation…of the Black athlete,” wrote Edwards, “is no more a recent development than is the inhumanity and deprivation suffered by Afro-American non-athletes.” The crucial difference was that, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, athletes began “speaking out not only on their own behalf, but on behalf of their downtrodden race, and the world and nation are listening.” Bill Russell, an NBA legend and activist, believed in using his platform to fight back against institutional racism and inequality. “Not only am I tall enough to make a lot of people uncomfortable,” he wrote in Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, his 1979 autobiography, “but I am also black, and infamous as an athlete.”

This progress in the sports arena, however, concurred with Richard Nixon’s launch of the “war on drugs.” Moral panic about drug trafficking in the inner cities and Black communities became widespread across media outlets. In 1986, the Chicago Tribune labeled cocaine the “scourge” of the NBA. Black athletes, who had risen to high status during these decades, became targets of a media-stoked white panic. As Matthew Schneider-Mayerson notes, Black athletes were “seen as stereotypically ‘black’ as a result of their alleged drug abuse, on-court fisticuffs, and public union struggles.”

In the 1970s, the NBA had become a mostly Black league. This demographic shift gave racists an opening to associate the league with illegal drug-taking. True to centuries of white fear around the immorality of successful Black people, a number of newspapers claimed–with sparse evidence–that the number of players on drugs ranged from 75 to 90 percent. Cocaine became a symbol of conservative agitation about Black upward mobility.

As the fourth pick in the 1978 draft, Michael Ray Richardson was expected to save the New York Knicks and bring back the franchise’s glory days from the early 1970s. Under Richardson and Bill Cartwright, the Knicks slowly improved through the turn of the decade, winning 50 games and making the playoffs in 1981. At the beginning of the 1981-82 season, the team looked set to challenge the Celtics and 76ers for dominance in the East. But when New York fell short of those dreams, rumors of team-wide drug usage arose.

The Knicks completely fell apart during the 1982 season. Players who had given spectacular performances the year before struggled. The team limped around .500 for the first part of the season and crumbled after the All-Star Game, finishing the season with just 33 wins.

In his 2013 book Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI, writer Brian Tuohy details an FBI investigation of multiple members of the 1980s Knicks who were suspected of point-shaving and game-fixing for their drug dealer. Tuohy references FBI documents concerning the investigation and concludes that the Bureau “seemed to possess very credible information that three members of the New York Knicks were shaving points as a favor to their cocaine supplier.” The nature of this credible information, however, remains unclear, and Tuhoy’s history raises questions about FBI surveillance and consistent criminalization of Black players.

The FBI kept its ongoing investigation under-wraps, disclosing nothing to the public or to the Knicks. But the Bureau clearly believed it had a case, given the considerable resources it dedicated to probing and inquiring into the players’ suspected crimes. The investigation continued into the 1983 season, but it ultimately fell apart due to lack of physical evidence. The FBI was unable to get anyone on tape doing or saying anything illegal, and the few witnesses they interrogated denied any knowledge of wrongdoing. There was no actual proof of the Knicks throwing games. In the end it was just rumors and insinuation, and by 1986 the case was closed.

As the image of drug-using NBA stars grew as a point of anxious fixation for conservative America, professional basketball became an intersection point for the War on Drugs and the country’s long history of criminalizing upwardly mobile Black men. “By using cocaine,” Schneider-Mayerson observes, “NBA players implicitly signaled that their wealth and power allowed them to ignore racial boundaries…During the 1970s, a decade of relative scarcity, young black men who crossed the interrelated boundaries of color and class via their economic position posed a threat to the social order of white privilege.”

In a 2021 Jacobin article, Abdul Malik recalls another instance of the War on Drugs interloping with the NBA. Malik describes the tragedy of Celtics’ first-round draft pick Len Bias, who died of a cocaine-induced heart attack in 1986: “Conservatives used his death to justify the intensification of the War on Drugs. They defended carceral drug policy, aggressive neighborhood policing, and zero tolerance policies.” The Nixon administration then used his death as incitement for mass incarceration policies. Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 four months after the college star’s death. Known as the “Len Bias Law,” it included a mandatory minimum prison term of twenty years and a maximum life sentence, as well as a fine of up to $2 million.

Malik concludes that popular and academic discussions of Bias’s death have not paid enough attention to the way authorities used it to justify policies that punished Black athletes. In the aftermath of Bias’s overdose, league scrutiny of drug use shifted away from team-wide PED usage and instead fixated on the individual faults of players using recreational drugs.

The NBA’s complicity in the War on Drugs is long-rooted, and the case of Jalen Harris demonstrates its continuance. While the NBA’s decision to suspend random marijuana testing is a step in the right direction, Black players will continue to suffer the most under surveillance policies.

Image: photo of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Taken by Jean-Baptiste Bellet, edited by Mariam Aiyad.

Mariam Aiyad is an M.A. student at Georgetown University studying Global, International, and Comparative History. Her research interests include twentieth century resistance, protest, and culture.

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