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The professional football season is now in full swing, and the most newsworthy events at the start unfortunately are occurring off the field rather than on it. The best player in the league - Lawrence Taylor, the pride of New York and the Giants - begins the season on the sidelines sacked by drugs. Again.

The case of this talented, stellar young man is a dreadful sign of the times in professional sports as athletes from various sports continue to trip up on illicit drugs, mirroring what is going on throughout society. Already after the first couple weeks of play no fewer than 18 other NFL players have joined Taylor on the dubious All-Drug Team.It has become sheer folly. These guys get caught using drugs, then the tough-talking commissioners, vowing to "clean up the sport," slap the players on the wrist not once, but twice.

Only after repeated missteps by the players do the commissioners do anything tough, such as levy lifetime bans. Even that is a misnomer, since the major sports allow players to petition for reinstatement after a year or two out.

The fact of the matter is that in America, if you run, block and tackle well, can slam-dunk a basketball, have just the right grip on a tennis racket or can stroke line drives or throw a baseball well, your drug abuse is excused and accepted.

Such treatment is unfair on its face, since most ordinary people in society pay a heavy price socially, professionally and personally when their drug use is discovered.

How many chances do blue-collar workers and nine-to-fivers get if they test positive for illicit drugs? If you test positive in a pre-employment drug screen, what are the chances you would be hired?

More importantly, wrist-slappings administered to athletes offer little deterrence to others who may consider experimenting with illegal drugs, especially to the youngsters who worship these supposed role models. They must assume from the lightweight penalties accorded professional athletes that drug use is OK.

I would like to see the commissioners really strike out some of these players who weave themselves into this tragic, tangled web. Some may say harsh penalties would make players hesitant about coming forward to help. But the fact of the matter is that we should not encourage these individuals to do rush jobs on their recovery for the sake of the game, and we should not mislead society into thinking that drug use in sports is taken less seriously than in other walks of life.

No 30-day or even 60-day suspension can suffice when a player is found to have a serious drug problem. I don't think many drug treatment professionals would disagree with me that serious drug problems cannot be overcome in a month.

To its credit, the National Basketball Association has announced it will suspend for one year without pay all rookies and first-year players who test positive for cocaine and heroin. But even one year is not always time enough to overcome something as powerful as drug addiction.

In the case of Taylor, a 30-day suspension means he misses four games. The question of whether he will receive his paycheck has yet to be resolved. A positive sign, though, occurred recently when team owner Wellington Mara said Taylor would not play any more until he at least completes a drug rehabilitation program, whether it's 30 days or six months. At least, Mara is not among those asking the silly question: "Will he be ready in time for the Redskins?" The real question is not to be ready for the Redskins or anybody else, but for Taylor to be ready for the rest of his life.

(Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., is chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.)