What Could Have Been: The Mediated Life and Afterlife of Len Bias

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This dissertation considers the role of sports journalists, politicians, activists, and other mythmakers in constructing the posthumous legacy of Len Bias, a black college basketball star who died of a cocaine overdose two days after being selected second overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 National Basketball Association Draft. Guided by previous research on myth, collective memory, and the intersection of sports media and race, I analysis Bias as a cultural text that reveals both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic views of black masculinity, crime, drugs, and sports. Journalists lauded Bias during his career at the University of Maryland for being an exemplary scholar-athlete, and the antithesis of the wayward black athlete and black drug-dealer that increasingly appeared in the media during the mid-1980s. After his death, however, journalists, university presidents, sports administrators, and politicians used Bias’ death, erroneously linked to crack cocaine, to call for anti-drug reforms in American sport aimed at black athletes and tougher legislative measures to combat the threat of crack, a cheap form of powder cocaine that originated in poor, black inner-city communities. During this anti-crack frenzy, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established harsh penalties for drug offenders found with crack cocaine. After the initial frenzy dissipated, Bias’ death still shaped discussions about the criminal justice system and sports.

Bias was blamed for the decline of the Boston Celtics and Maryland basketball program.

Professional sports leagues and college teams changed the way they screened potential draftees and monitored current players. Reporters, columnists, and politicians also frequently invoked Bias as a cautionary tale, a symbol of the dangers of drug use and poor decision-making. The creators of these dominant narratives justified the increased surveillance of black athletes and young black men in general, signaling an ongoing crisis of black men in America. On the other hand, activists, sports journalists, and fans of Bias have used counter-narratives to both signal the damage done to black men due to the politicization of Bias’ death and to reposition Bias as a sports hero.