The overriding question raised by last week's post-Super Bowl drug controversy is this: Is either the NFL or the NFL Players Association really serious about confronting pro football's continuing drug problems? As stories implicating as many as 12 New England Patriots in the use of cocaine and marijuana hit the nation's sports pages, there was NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii saying, "I wish everybody were still talking about the Bears and the 43 ratings [actually the TV rating was 48.3]." But Rozelle acknowledged, referring to the NFL's ongoing drug-testing debate, "The ball is in my court." That only served to raise another question: Just where has the ball been all along, Pete?
The New England situation was labeled "a mess" and a "sad affair" by Raiders managing general partner AI Davis, who lit into his nemesis Rozelle for failing to deal effectively with drug use by NFL players. "The league needs a strong program and someone with the guts to enforce it," said Davis, adding that "if we don't administer severe penalties—tough, major penalties, as well as rehabilitation—we will lose the fight." Nearly four years have passed since former NFL defensive lineman Don Reese gave details of widespread NFL drug involvement (SI, June 14, 1982), and in that time the league and the NFLPA have done little about the situation.
The NFL's existing drug policy was adopted as part of the league's collective-bargaining agreement in the aftermath of the Reese revelations. It provides for preseason drug testing of all players and subsequent confidential testing when management has "reasonable cause" to believe an athlete is using drugs. It rules out spot testing for drugs.
But the NFL policy lacks both the carrot (there is no provision for players with drug problems to voluntarily come forward for treatment) and the stick (successively firmer punishment for relapses) contained in the plan adopted by the NBA. Accordingly, coaches and other team officials often find it convenient to ignore drug use among players, a course of inaction that NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw referred to last week when he said, "There are stars and superstars on every team who are doing drugs, and the team and the coaches protect them because they are who they are."
Unfortunately, Upshaw also seems disinclined to do much about the situation—a lack of interest that appears to extend to anabolic steroids. The use of steroids is rampant in the NFL, posing health hazards for players and raising ethical questions (SI, May 13, 1985), yet the league has never flatly outlawed them, much less tested for them. Until recently, Upshaw had denied any knowledge of use of anabolic steroids in the league, and last week he said that testing for them would never be part of the NFL drug program because testing for steroids costs "$5,000 to $10,000 per test." In fact, the cost of a steroid test ranges from $150 to $250. Last month the NCAA adopted routine testing for anabolic steroids at all championship events and bowl games. The Olympics already have such tests.
Rozelle and Upshaw appear to be playing similar games on the subject of testing for cocaine and other street drugs. In recent weeks several NFL teams have tried to impose blanket postseason drug testing on their players, efforts that the union has resisted by arguing, among other things, that such testing would be an invasion of privacy. For its part the league has insisted, just as righteously, that more extensive testing is an essential deterrent to drug use. But last week Upshaw said that the NFLPA had offered to drop its opposition to mandatory postseason testing if management would agree to restore team rosters from 45 players to the 49-man limit that existed until last season. No way, said management, which had reduced the rosters to save money. Protection of privacy? The union was willing to use that principle as a bargaining chip. Essential deterrent? Management takes the position that it already has the right to conduct postseason tests. Why pay for something if you can get it for free?
The only one who seemed to be doing anything at the moment to combat drugs in the NFL was Patriots coach Raymond Berry, and he was paying the price.
"Things need to be clarified," said Berry on Friday as he sat at his home in Medfield, Mass. An honest and amiable man, he had seen his AFC championship team torn emotionally asunder, his integrity challenged and his efforts to improvise an effective drug-testing program ruined following revelations about drug use on his team in a series of articles by Boston Globe sportswriter Ron Borges.
Borges's first story appeared on Tuesday, less than 36 hours after the Patriots' 46-10 Super Bowl drubbing by the Bears and just a day after the New England players had voted overwhelmingly at a team meeting in New Orleans to accept a one-year mandatory drug-testing program proposed to them by Berry. Calling this meeting proved to be a mistake by Berry. The NFLPA saw it as an effort to defy the collective-bargaining pact, and the union filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board. Upshaw also criticized the timing of the gathering: "It was the morning after the game. These guys were up all night. They were upset. They would have agreed to have someone shot in the city square."
It was during this meeting that Berry first told his players that an unnamed reporter—Borges—had "names and facts" about drug use on the team, and that the story could break anytime. When Borges's stories broke, they described a "major drug abuse problem" among the Pats. Borges's first story did not use players' names, but his second-day story did. It said that six New England players—wide receivers Irving Fryar and Stephen Starring, running back Tony Collins, defensive end Kenneth Sims, cornerback Raymond Clayborn and safety Roland James—had admitted to Berry, when he confronted them about his suspicions, that they had used illegal drugs. Berry, perhaps the sport's straightest moral arrow, told Borges that as many as 12 Patriots either had "serious" drug problems—Berry's definition of serious seemingly goes right down to onetime use of marijuana—or were under suspicion.