An Honest Discussion on Tyreke Evans, Addiction, and Drugs of Abuse in the NBA

It was announced earlier this week that Tyreke Evans had been banned from the NBA for violation of its NBA/NBAPA anti-drug policy. He is eligible for reinstatement to the league in two years, but is not guaranteed reinstatement. At his current age and stature in the league, there is a chance that he could potentially be reinstated, but I would think it’s a slim one. More formally, he invoked the anti-drug policy concerned with drugs of abuse. The list of these drugs was circulated and can be found in a tweet here and is relatively consistent with the list of Schedule 1 drugs from the federal government.

This announcement spurred a pretty thought-provoking conversation in our group’s chat. Like a lot of other places, PFO’s chat is constantly buzzing with ideas, thoughtful conversation, and general discourse about the current state of affairs in the world of sports and culture. Once the news dropped, it only took a few minutes for discussion to fall into this rabbit hole. Is it fair that players are banned for their first offense? Do players deserve more support, or is punishment fair for such blatant rule breaking? We bounced a few ideas around, but then the conversation fell to the wayside. It’s been a thought that I haven’t really been able to shake, and I wanted to work through things even deeper and try to understand the conversation from all sides.

The NBA’s Long History with Drugs of Abuse

I had always heard that the league had trouble getting into the forefront of the country’s interest during the 1970s and early 1980s due to the widespread drug use. I assumed some of this was a misdirection on the racism that many held towards a predominately African American basketball league in this time. While I’m sure this played a significant role in the driving of the stigma around the league, there also is significant evidence that drugs of abuse were a massive issue for the league. In order for the league to grow and become the powerhouse that it is today, these issues needed to be addressed.

In a Washington Post piece from August 20, 1980, the issue of widespread cocaine and freebase abuse was well documented. Writer Chris Cobbs notes, “Although there are no reliable figures on the use of cocaine by players, estimates by people in the game range from 40 percent to 75 percent, with perhaps as many as 10 percent getting high with free base.” That is a pretty staggering figure to consider. The article goes on to note several arrests including Bernard King, one of its star players, and Atlanta guard Eddie Johnson who both were arrested in the summer of 1980s for different charges related to possession of cocaine. Worst of all, Terry Furlow, died in a car accident in May of 1980 with cocaine in his system.

The NBA clearly needed to address these issues and did so by forming a committee to lay the groundwork to invoke new and more severe penalties into the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Those penalties have evolved over time and currently were last updated in 2005-06. The policy today states that players will be banned without the possibility of reinstatement for two years for the use of any drug on its drugs of abuse list. Treatment is mandatory for reinstatement and is driven through the direction of the team’s medical director.

I can understand the NBA’s hard stance on drugs of abuse because of this deep and dark history with the substances. They have experienced several high profile arrests around some of their best athletes, in addition to the death of some of their current and future players due to these substances.  The NBA after all is a business and it’s bad business to have that aura around the league, fair or unfair. They needed to deter future and current players from taking these substances and thought this was the most effective way of doing so.

Rehabilitation vs. Punishment

After reading through the section of the NBA’s CBA on their anti-drug policy, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of what I was thinking would be effective was noted in the program. Treatment was prioritized and mandatory, which is a great first step. I believe that the league should go even further and look to incentivize its talent with rehabilitation and put them in position to succeed by investing in these services. I’ll be more specific in a bit, but wanted to talk why a path to redemption is crucial to saving the lives of their athletes.

I think it’s important to understand my personal relationship with addiction and drugs of abuse. I’m not going to address any specifics, but these issues, like many of you who are reading, have affected my life on many different levels. For myself, some of the most influential, strong, and important individuals in my life are those who have overcome addiction, namely alcoholism. It is a part of every day of my life, and its participation in my life has helped sculpt me into the person I am today. Without the openness and support of several different support groups, I would imagine those individuals would be in the same pits they were once in.

The conversation around mental health has changed so much in the last 10-15 years in the United States. From something that was shoved under the mattress and away from the light of day, it has become something that we are far more open about. Brave individuals, like Shamus Clancy and Matthew Del Rio, have even shared from within our own community their own personal trials and tribulations. It is important now that we do not shove these feelings and fears away, but rather broach and attack these problems to help us move on and be comfortable in our own skin. I would imagine Tyreke Evans may be dealing with some of these same issues and that they are manifesting through this drug use. We need to incentivize these individuals to get help, not punish them. Provide them with the carrot and put away the proverbial and archaic stick.

Changing Times, Changing Policy

I’m the type of person who feels a bit empty to broach issues and not come forward with a solution, so I will try my best here to do so. This is a compilation of my own thoughts and reflections, along with some of the feedback from talking through these things with different individuals.

The NBA needs to be a little more supportive and lax towards first time offenders. I don’t believe that these players should escape scotch-free from these mistakes, but the league should look to a better job of incentivizing them to grow as individuals. I believe that the policy should be to suspend first time offenders indefinitely with the contingency of return being the successful completion of a drug rehabilitation program. There should be no set amount of time that the player needs to be barred from the league, and they should have access to the mental and physical health resources that are required to overcome these problems. The program and policy should be structured around overcoming and outgrowing these problems, not punishing and pushing these athletes further down the path of addiction and wrongdoing.

I think it’s fair to assume that many athletes in this position come from challenging backgrounds and may not have the support structure around them to overcome these issues alone. It makes sense to me to not force these players out of the picture, but rather embrace them and provide them with every bit of help you can. I also think it is important to acknowledge that this very well could have been a one time mistake and isn’t indicitive of a pattern of behavior. In my opinion, this policy allows for the flexibility to treat both addicts and not addicts alike without destroying their careers.

I do understand that the NBA is a business and that these problems nearly collapsed the league, but this policy still allows for the league to be stern and strong. The only difference is the league will now provide more avenues for the players to succeed and not send them off to struggle with their own issues. I know that today they do provide recommended programs from the medical staff (which is great!), but I think the league and players association should invest more in bringing these services in-house. The league can still be strongly against drug use and keep their punishments for multi-offenders the same, but they should offer a path to redemption. Without it, you don’t give these guys the chance to change who they are and change those around them.