- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

Jesse Jackson is shouting again, demanding to be heard, because this is what he does when he has the requisite number of minicams and reporters in his presence.

Jackson is feeling a whole lot of pain following the death of Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler, and he wants answers, and he wants them now.

He wants the NCAA to investigate. Calling out the National Guard wouldn't hurt, either.

Somebody is dead, and someone has to pay, and this is no time to let the still-surfacing facts get in the way of the well-rehearsed drill.

Jackson has made a career out of being a grief counselor, of joining hands with the truly grief-stricken and saying a prayer, a couple of prayers if necessary, and expressing the proper mixture of hurt and outrage.

Jackson has chased his latest ambulance to the doorstep of an elite university that, until a few years ago, was not interested in playing football with the big boys of the Big Ten.

Wheeler's parents, in their devastating loss, have enlisted the support of Jackson to play the word games and the legal team of Johnnie Cochran and Jim Montgomery to solicit the conscience money.

The two-prong assault is designed to win the battle of words in the public domain as well as in the courtroom, if the impending wrongful-death lawsuit ever sees a day in court.

The university, meanwhile, is conducting an internal review, trying to determine where it failed, if it failed, trying to make right that which never will be right for the family.

No settlement from the university ever will bring back the 22-year-old safety. No finding ever will explain how the sports culture, the football culture in particular, has assumed this distorted sense of importance.

The players are the lab rats caught in the vortex of becoming faster, larger, stronger, of ingesting this or that substance peddling quick results, because the coaches, fans and media demand it.

Wheeler was an asthmatic who routinely collapsed during conditioning drills, as many as 30 times over the years, it has been reported. One of the questions enveloping his death is whether the ephedrine found in his system contributed to his last attack.

By law, the Food and Drug Administration is not permitted to regulate the ever-growing market of performance-enhancing supplements, many of which contain ephedrine.

According to the FDA, ephedrine has been linked to at least 80 deaths since 1994. Equally alarming, no one knows what the long-term outcome is for those athletes who employ supplements.

None of this, of course, jibes with Jackson's huffing and puffing and the legal maneuvering of the Cochran-Montgomery team.

It seems someone is guilty, because someone is dead, and the 24-7 news monster, forever hungry, is there to grant Jackson a platform.

Maybe there was negligence on the part of the university, if not a violation of NCAA rules by the football program.

Maybe, just to be on the safe side, Wheeler should not have been allowed to play as demanding a sport as football, either.

Life is a series of calculations until something awful happens. It can't happen to you. It happens to the other guy.

In a world with more balance, perhaps the rush to find an unnatural edge would be viewed as the craziness it is. Being a human guinea pig is usually a sign of desperation, associated with those who have a terminal illness and no other recourse.

Yet away from the cheers, the cameras and bright lights, all too many athletes are consuming these elixir-like products with unknown dimensions.

Football used to build character. Now it builds these 6-foot-3, 330-pound figures who put unthinkable stress on their bodies.

Who knows what role, if any, ephedrine played in Wheeler's fatal asthma attack? Who knows where the urge to be better collided with self-preservation? Who knows if Wheeler would have survived if there had been a team of doctors on the practice field?

The university is going through the process of trying to find some of these impossible answers, of responding as best as it can to a tough situation, which is beside the point to Jackson and the family's legal team.

They are following their playbook now, however unseemly it is.


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