June 29, 2021
The college basketball star became a symbol of the fight against drugs in the 1980s. But it ended up ushering in a discriminatory legal system
How Len Bias’s death helped launch the US’s unjust war on drugs
Sometimes solutions can have drastic unintended consequences. Mike Krzyzewski, one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time, once told the Washington Post: “During my years as a coach, the two most dominant players we’ve faced were Michael Jordan and Len Bias”. Bias was a star for the University of Maryland, and was selected as the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics, where he would play alongside such legends as Larry Bird. But on 19 June 1986 at 6.30am, months before Bias was due to step on to a court as a professional, a 911 operator received a call that changed both sports and US history.
In my book, Tiger Woods’s Back and Tommy John’s Elbow, I examine athlete deaths and tragedies and how their consequences ripple outward resulting in something called the Cobra Effect. The Cobra Effect is based on an anecdote from India during the days of the British empire. At the time, the cobra population was out of control. In order to curb the epidemic, a local governor decided to put a bounty on cobra skins. Unbeknownst to officials, farmers began to breed cobras to skin for bounties. Once the scheme was discovered, the bounty program was cancelled. With no market for their cobras, the farmers released them into the wild, increasing the snake population. As a result, what was supposed to be a solution created a worse problem. The reaction to Bias’s death fell into the Cobra Effect.
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