When he made that admission, Rozelle was under some pressure to get tougher on drugs. In its 1982 collective-bargaining agreement with the NFLPA, the league had negotiated for the right to allow the 28 teams to conduct preseason testing and reasonable-cause follow-up tests in the case of positives, but discipline proved to be hit-or-miss because some teams swept their drug problems under the carpet. In January '86, shortly after New England lost to Chicago in Super Bowl XX, concern about drug use by NFL players increased with publication of a series of Boston Globe articles in which Patriots management acknowledged that as many as a dozen team members may have been involved with drugs. Later in '86, Maryland basketball star Len Bias and Cleveland Browns safety Don Rogers died of cocaine overdoses. Rozelle's attempt to adopt random testing was shot down by the arbitrator, but Rozelle did take two other actions: He shifted primary responsibility for combating drug use from the clubs to his own office, and he appointed Tennant to the new position of drug adviser.
Tennant appeared to be admirably suited for the NFL job. He has an M.D. from the University of Kansas (1966) and a Ph.D. in public health from UCLA ('74), and he has taught in the School of Public Health at UCLA. At the time of his hiring by the NFL, Tennant was serving as a consultant for the drug programs of the California Highway Patrol, the state's Department of Justice and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was later dropped by the Dodgers, but in '87 he was named drug consultant for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). NFL literature describes him as "an expert in the field of drug treatment and research."
Yet Tennant's career has been dogged by controversy, much of it centering on alleged abuses involving his methadone clinics. He has also been criticized by peers for claiming to be able to spot drug users on sight, something most drug experts consider possible only in extreme cases. In a training film for his employees, Tennant said that tip-offs that someone may be using drugs include the wearing of blue jeans and T-shirts and the sporting of tattoos. He has conducted seminars at which he taught drug counselors a rapid-movement eye test that he claimed could be used to identify persons under the influence of drugs. The technique is considered by most experts to be, at best, a preliminary test of drug use. Last fall the Juneau (Alaska) Empire reported that in a speech to the Juneau-Gastineau Rotary Club, Tennant claimed partial credit for the Dodgers' success as a team in 1988 because he had cleaned up their drug problem. According to a baseball executive, league officials were unhappy with Tennant's discussing such matters in public—Tennant subsequently told The Los Angeles Times that his remarks in Juneau were quoted out of context—and this winter the Dodgers did not renew Tennant's contract. Team general manager Fred Claire said that decision had nothing to do with the Juneau speech. He said the Dodgers dropped Tennant because they wanted to widen the scope of their drug-treatment program to include care in other health areas.
At an arbitrator's hearing a few months after assuming his NFL job, Tennant appeared to unflinchingly accept his role as overseer of the league's supposedly more centralized approach to combating drugs. He asserted that team physicians "need a consultant like myself to guide them when they do their evaluations." However, he sang a different tune at last fall's Calvin Thomas hearing, at which he seemed to blame the clubs for what he acknowledged to be the "erratic" handling of the cases of some NFL players. Indeed, one of Tennant's most serious failings is that the league's drug program remains almost as fragmented today as it was when he took over.
Tennant, like Rozelle, has been inconsistent in discussing the extent of drug use by NFL players. The day after he took the job, Tennant said in an interview on ABC-TV's Good Morning America, "I could give you an argument that [the drug problem] in sports might not even be as big as it is outside [sports]." At the arbitrator's hearing just over three weeks later, Tennant reversed himself. "I have reason to believe that [the drug problem in the NFL] is worse than [in] the rest of society." He said he based that assessment partly on the results of tests of prospective draftees—none of whom had yet appeared in an NFL game and few of whom ever would.
Something that both Tennant and Rozelle have been mum about is how few positives for cocaine and marijuana their zealous drug testing has turned up. Moyer maintains that releasing the percentages of players who tested positive would be a breach of confidentiality—a curious argument, considering that the league freely names names when suspending players. The argument is further weakened by the fact that Rozelle has publicly discussed the overall results of steroids testing for the past two years—6% to 7% of all players in both 1987 and '88 were positive. (As with the test results for cocaine and marijuana, those figures may be low; some current and former players estimate that 40% or more of NFL athletes take steroids.) When pressed on why steroid results are handled differently from those for cocaine and marijuana, Moyer said that the league confirmed steroid figures in '88 only after they had been reported at an owners' meeting and then leaked. That doesn't explain why Rozelle discussed the steroid figures again in '89—or why the league hasn't confided cocaine and marijuana figures to the owners. "How would [announcing the figures] help? It just wouldn't do any good," said Moyer. But the unavoidable conclusion is that NFL officials fear publicizing the figures because then they might have trouble justifying their drug-testing program.
The NFL is on particularly shaky ground in its apparent disdain for thresholds in determining what constitutes a positive test. Many private organizations that test employees make their thresholds known, but Moyer refused to say what the NFL's thresholds are or, indeed, if the league actually recognizes any. Moyer said only that because of advances in testing technology, a steady lowering of thresholds has been possible. As for the NIDA thresholds, Moyer said, "You can make a good argument that those levels are really obsolete." Tennant expressed his low opinion of the NIDA levels at the Thomas hearing when he testified, "One of the reasons [NIDA officials] have set those standards high is because those standards are being used for very punitive measures, in that they fire those people when they diagnose them." It is difficult to fathom why Tennant would consider the firing of federal workers more punitive than the banishment of NFL players, sometimes for life.
Most drug experts believe that fairness requires the recognition of thresholds. Says John Ambre, a professor of internal medicine at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, "There are two reasons why thresholds are set. One, there's a level at which technology is no longer able to distinguish between a positive and a negative. [Two,] marijuana levels can reach detectable levels from passive smoke."
For now NIDA levels apply by law only to tests of government employees. But last January a bill was introduced in Congress to regulate drug-testing facilities that would apply NIDA levels to all drug tests. Representative John Dingell of Michigan, a sponsor of the bill, said in a speech to the House that this was "the first step in bringing order, accuracy and integrity to urine drug testing." If, as seems likely, Dingell's bill becomes law, anyone applying thresholds lower than those set by NIDA could face a $10,000 fine and three years in prison. Major league baseball has expressed support for the bill, but the NFL has lobbied for an exception.
In the meantime, the league tramples on players' civil liberties. NFL officials pay lip service to confidentiality in drug cases, yet that did not prevent Rozelle's office from announcing last fall's suspensions before granting hearings to players who requested them. In defending this practice, Moyer told SI that in suspending players, "it's necessary to make your best judgment, act first, then if a player wants an appeal, give [it to] him as fast as possible. You can't wait." Moyer did not say why the NFL couldn't wait.