•Sound medical practice demands that drug programs not rely for diagnosis on testing alone, and the NFL specifies in its drug literature that players who test positive are to receive evaluation for possible medical treatment. Yet the league routinely breaches its own policy. Some players who test positive have received help. But others have never been questioned about their drug history, much less been seen by a doctor. The league too often confines its "evaluation" to ordering reasonable-cause testing. Says Armand Nicholi Jr., a New England Patriots team doctor and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, "The tendency is to let the tests speak for themselves, not to depend too much on a player's history."
In other cases, players who test positive fall through the cracks and do not undergo reasonable-cause testing. In this category are two recently retired players, who, according to records seen by SI, came up positive for cocaine in preseason 1987 tests. Both players say they didn't learn they had tested positive until SI informed them 18 months later. But both acknowledged they had used drugs and may have had dependencies that needed treatment.
•Conversely, it's likely that some players who aren't addicts are being treated as if they were. NFL policy dictates that after two positive tests, two drug incidents or one of each, a player must undergo a 30-day rehabilitation program. Yet two positive drug tests—even two true positives—don't necessarily make someone an addict. Former Chicago Bears running back Calvin Thomas had two below-50-ng results for marijuana on preseason tests in 1987 and a definite positive for cocaine and marijuana last August, whereupon Rozelle suspended him for 30 days. In a hearing before Rozelle, Tennant said that Thomas "has an illness I want to see treated," and he also said, "He is one of the unfortunate people who probably have a dependent personality, and he's got a long way to go to cure." In fact, Tennant could not have known that, because neither he nor any other doctor had treated Thomas.
•Many players and their agents believe the league plays favorites in drug cases. The claim is often made that stars hear in advance about tests or are otherwise protected. One star who tested positive in preseason 1987 testing—with a 300-ng reading for cocaine, double NIDA's current threshold—is a potential Hall of Famer who has since retired. He is one of the former players who told SI they might have benefited from treatment but were never evaluated or even told they had tested positive.
•Confidentiality is critical to any properly run drug program, but several of Tennant's former employees say that Tennant has repeatedly mentioned in casual conversation the names of NFL players who supposedly tested positive. Andy Knott, who was Thomas's agent, says that during a phone conversation Tennant offhandedly disclosed to him the names of two of Thomas's teammates who had tested positive. Under the arbitrator's decision of Jan. 18, 1987, Tennant is considered to have a doctor-patient relationship with NFL players, which presumably would make such name-dropping a breach of ethics. (SI has withheld the names of alleged drug users unless they have been publicly identified as such by the NFL or by law enforcement agencies.)
•Accepted protocol requires that urine samples be handled with utmost security. On NFL tests, bottled samples are stored wherever it is convenient to do so. Many are shipped by air courier services, with no protection against tampering en route or after arrival at the lab. According to a former employee at Tennant's lab in West Covina, Calif. bottles routinely were kept in a refrigerator that was accessible to everyone who worked in that lab. Some specimens were labeled with players' names instead of code numbers. NFLPA general counsel Dick Berthelsen tells of samples taken from Seattle Seahawk players by a technician who carried them in a suitcase onto a commercial airliner, after which urine was seen dripping from the bag. Moyer acknowledged that "there was some leakage out of one specimen" involving a Seahawk player in 1988 but said there was no contamination of that or other specimens in the shipment. Moyer added, "Human beings aren't perfect. We have great confidence in the program and in the methodology, but you can never eliminate all mistakes."
Given the often haphazard nature of the NFL drug program, it is not surprising that the league has not been eager to hold its procedures up to judicial scrutiny. In the 1987 preseason, Bears defensive end Richard Dent tested positive for marijuana with a level of less than 50 ng. Dent took two follow-up tests; both were negative. When the league sought to test him again, Dent refused. The NFL treated that as the equivalent of a positive test and suspended him. Dent filed suit. The league could have tried to defend its drug policies in court but instead reinstated Dent.
Another player who challenged Rozelle in court was Seahawk defensive back Terry Taylor. Taylor failed his 1987 preseason drug test, went into rehab and underwent as many as 25 follow-up tests, all but the last of which turned up negative, over the ensuing 10 months. Last Aug. 30, Rozelle suspended Taylor for 30 days, claiming he had tested positive six days earlier. On Sept. 16, after missing the first two games of the '88 season because of the suspension, Taylor sought a temporary restraining order in U.S. district court in Seattle.
In challenging the NFL, Taylor denied taking drugs at any time since his 1987 positive. Assailing the alleged '88 positive, his lawyers said they had received a printout from the league indicating that the test had revealed only a "trace" amount of cocaine. Beyond that, Taylor's lawyers suggested Taylor's sample could have been mishandled. They said Taylor had produced his sample and then had had to hurry off to a team meeting without seeing the bottle sealed or his name affixed to it. They also contended that Rozelle had breached confidentiality in branding Taylor a drug abuser before Taylor had a chance to contest the suspension at a hearing. Judge Carolyn Dimmick granted the restraining order, noting, "There are serious questions raised about the manner of the testing, whether or not it's flawed." Taylor returned to the Seahawks, and it was only then that he finally received a hearing before Rozelle. A decision in the case has never been announced, and in his interview with SI, Moyer would not divulge what the decision was. Suffice it to say that the NFL did not invite further court action by suspending Taylor anew after the restraining order expired.
If the NFL has trouble defending its policies on substance abuse, it may be because those policies are based less on legal or scientific principles than on public-relations considerations—and contradictory ones, at that. Concerned lest the NFL be portrayed as drug infested, Rozelle has played down drug use among the players. At the same time, he has sought to justify no-nonsense measures by insisting that the league has a serious drug problem. In January 1986, he told The New York Times, "From the players I talk to, and this is merely a guess, [drug use] is less pervasive now than it was three to five years ago." Yet at the July '86 arbitrator's hearing on the league's dispute with the NFLPA over random testing, Rozelle testified, "I think there is considerable evidence that [players' drug use] is a much more serious problem [than it used to be], but I don't want to say that to the press."