Athletes are role models for American children. And when pros experiment with drugs, youngsters may emulate them. This possible influence on young people is increasingly important given the findings of a series of drug-abuse studies released Wednesday by the federal Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration.
Drs. Patrick O'Malley and Lloyd D. Johnston of the University of Michigan, reporting on the progress of surveys under way for the last 10 years, found that one in every six of high school seniors in the class of 1984 reported experimentation with cocaine.
They also reported that use of cocaine, unlike other illicit drugs, tends to increase among young people after they graduate from school, and that young people see less risk in cocaine experimentation as they grow older.
``Overall, we find a disturbingly high proportion of young adults in America place themselves at risk of developing a dependency on this highly reinforcing drug by taking the initial step of trying it,'' noted Drs. O'Malley and Johnston.
Commenting on the studies, federal agency head Donald Ian MacDonald said, ``For years, people thought cocaine was harmless -- a so-called `recreational drug.' Now, we know the truth: Cocaine can be a killer. Emergency-room admissions associated with cocaine use tripled between 1981 and 1984. The number of deaths associated with cocaine also tripled.''
Those who work full time with young athletes have differing opinions as to the impact of drug-using professionals on children.
``Hopefully, the young people can learn [from the Pittsburgh trial] that drugs are not good and are against the law,'' says Steve Keener at the headquarters of Little League Baseball in Williamsport, Pa. He says kids might pay attention to Keith Hernandez, who testified in Pittsburgh that cocaine was ``the devil on this earth.''
Later, Mr. Hernandez was quoted as saying, ``If I can be an example for young kids as far as drugs are concerned -- don't mess with them because it's a deadend street.''
Jim Taft, National Football Commissioner for Pop Warner football, says kids are more sophisticated about drugs and athletes than many adults think. ``Children are disappointed when they see [sports] stars who are into drugs,'' he says. But ``they still relate to the good football player.''