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William Oscar Johnson
September 19, 1988
The number of NFL players suspected of drug abuse is growing at an alarming rate
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September 19, 1988

Hit For A Loss

The number of NFL players suspected of drug abuse is growing at an alarming rate

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Now all tests fall under the jurisdiction of the NFL's drug expert, Dr. Forest Tennant, 47, an associate professor at the UCLA School of Public Health and an expert on chemical dependency. Jan Van Duser, the NFL's director of operations, told SI's Jill Lieber: "We now have our own collectors go in, observe the players offering specimens and send the samples directly to Tennant's lab. He does two tests on each sample and then sends it out for two different processes at another lab. He gets four readings per specimen, and if any one is negative, the player is considered clean. We must have unanimous results."

It sounds foolproof, but in the point-counterpoint world of drug testing there are ways of concealing the use of illegal substances. This is particularly true of anabolic steroids, which the NFL has declared to be "prohibited in any quantity for any purpose." The use of diuretics to dilute the urine or the practice of laying off steroids for a few weeks before a test are among the most obvious ways to avoid detection. The San Francisco Examiner reported a more grotesque method last month: Several players from one NFL team arranged on the day of their training camp tests this summer to have an out-of-state technician catheterize them, drain the presumably steroid-loaded urine from their bladders and replace it with "clean" urine that the technician had brought with him. The players then passed this as their own specimens.

Bill Walsh, coach of the 49ers, told the Examiner, "As bizarre as it sounds, that is what we hear happened. The NFL authorities have been notified, but this obviously shows that we are not going to be able to solve the steroid problem very easily."

As it turns out, the steroid problem is something the league is pretty much ignoring this season. None of the 17 players punished so far were suspended for using steroids. Indeed, a league handout last week announced that the 1988 testing results weren't complete yet, that they wouldn't be complete until next month and that even when they were finally finished, players wouldn't need to worry about heavy disciplinary action for using of steroids. "While suspension is possible, it is not anticipated during the '88 season," said the release. Why? Commissioner Rozelle said, "We are learning about this substance just like the medical profession is learning.... We are uncertain about how effective the tests are.... It depends on how long the drug has been in a man's system, whether it was injected or taken orally—all these things make a difference. These tests cost a lot of dough.... People tell players when the tests are being held.... We are still in a learning process."

Skeptics doubt whether the NFL would want to nail all of its steroid users even if it could. Some players estimate that at least 40% of the league's players—mainly linemen—use steroids to get bigger and stronger. If that figure is correct, it means 500 pros could test positive for substance abuse in any testing period. To suspend so many players at once would all but sink the league.

According to Kim Wood, the strength coach for the Cincinnati Bengals, "It's wrong for the NFL to draw a distinction between cocaine, marijuana and steroids. Steroids are just as dangerous to the user, maybe more dangerous. But look at it this way: If a coach has a guy who's screwed up on cocaine, he'll have trouble coaching the guy. On the other hand, if a player's juiced up on steroids, he'll play like he's fighting on Guadalcanal. He's not only not a problem, he's an asset to the team."

Besides the problem of steroids, there's a suspicion among critics that the NFL drug-testing policy is more cosmetic than effective. Kicker Chris Bahr, 35, the oldest member of the Raiders, is particularly rough on the league: "I don't think they're trying to assist players. The policy stinks because they do not differentiate between a low level of marijuana or a high level of cocaine or a low level of alcohol. They treat it all the same. I'd say this is strictly a public relations move on their behalf, and the players are caught in the middle."

Gary Fencik, who retired from the Bears in 1987, was less fierce: "I don't doubt that they [the men who run the NFL] have concerns about players' health or they wouldn't be jeopardizing the success of some teams by taking people out. But I also think that this is part of the league's marketing policy to ensure the public of its credibility."

Along the same line, Keith Fahnhorst, former 49er tackle and longtime player representative who is now a budding stockbroker in Minneapolis, said, "You have to wonder if all this testing isn't just public relations and for the public image, when you hear the NFL isn't going to suspend steroid users. What does the NFL really want?"

Rozelle replies to these sorts of charges by saying, "If we just wanted good public relations, we could have taken drastic steps years ago just to look good. The more we learn about the drug problem, the more we realize how bad it is. Of course, we are in the public eye and we are in kids' eyes everywhere, so we have a responsibility to run as clean a sport as possible. You might call that a form of public relations. But we do have compassion for the players in this. We want to help them with their health problems."

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