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An Overdose Of Problems
Paul Zimmerman
September 01, 1983
The strike is history, but for Pete Rozelle the headaches keep getting worse, chief among them the NFL's increasing drug troubles and not just one but two rival football leagues
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September 01, 1983

An Overdose Of Problems

The strike is history, but for Pete Rozelle the headaches keep getting worse, chief among them the NFL's increasing drug troubles and not just one but two rival football leagues

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In the old days the Players Association's Ed Garvey would have blistered the commissioner for such action. How can you impose your own sentence when the court has already ruled? Perhaps there would have been a reference to racial imbalance—the great bulk of the cocaine stories have dealt with black players, and the four suspended players are black. But Garvey left the NFLPA this summer to become Wisconsin's deputy attorney general, and Gene Upshaw, who retired at the end of last season as a player after 16 years with the Raiders and has replaced Garvey as executive director, sees the situation differently.

"Rozelle has control over the integrity of the game, and it's within his right to do it," Upshaw said. "He talked to me a week before he came down with his ruling. I talked to my player reps. We decided on a hands-off policy. The fact that all the players suspended are black is something I'm very conscious of. So's Rozelle. I've had people from the Black Caucus in Washington call me about it. I told them I don't believe this reflects a black-white situation, but it certainly doesn't look good. Drugs are becoming more and more evident in the game. We've got to do something about it." Rozelle says, "I've probably talked to Gene Upshaw more in the last two weeks than I talked to Ed Garvey in six months."

Each NFL club is facing the drug problem in its own way. Cleveland Coach Sam Rutigliano has set up a model program for eight problem players on the Browns; these members of the so-called Inner Circle meet every week with Rutigliano, retired Cleveland stars Calvin Hill and Paul Warfield, as well as a psychiatrist and a religious adviser. Dallas tightened security at its Thousand Oaks, Calif. training camp, hiring guards to patrol the dorm. Fort Landry, they called the place.

The problem is, the NFL always has had a kind of drug culture. Heavy drinkers, even problem drinkers, were good ol' boys a few seasons back. Then the needles, the painkilling shots, joined alcohol as an accepted drug against the ever-present pain of postgame Mondays. Then came anabolic steroids and amphetamines, often dispensed with the full knowledge of the club. A way of life was taking hold: Pop it, drink it or shoot it and you'll feel better. Cocaine was the natural offspring, particularly with young people who had money to toss around.

Now there's even more money. All of a sudden, salaries that looked good two years ago seem anemic. Redskin Defensive End Dexter Manley, coming off a good season, wanted his salary upped in '83. As a fifth-round draft choice in 1981, he had accepted a $150,000, three-year package—about average. This year he asked for the $318,750 a season that Cowboy Defensive Tackle Randy White is getting. Manley settled for an estimated $200,000 a year. Until recently, White was the highest-paid defensive lineman in football, the first to top $300,000; now Miami's Bob Baumhower has sent White into the deep shadows with a $2 million, four-year package. The Giants' No. 1 pick in '81, Linebacker Lawrence Taylor, signed a reported $1.45 million, six-year deal as a rookie. Veterans were incensed that the club would pay a first-year player that much. There was talk of a walkout. Now things have come full circle. Taylor was a holdout for the first three weeks of training camp this summer. Hey, he said, the Chargers are giving their top pick, Linebacker Billy Ray Smith, $2.4 million for four years. I've made All-Pro two years and he hasn't played a down. Where's the justice?

In the NFL, free-agent movement is severely restricted, so salaries skyrocket only when there's a rival league in the bidding. For years, NFL players had been underpaid, but now the pendulum is swinging their way. The USFL jumped the NFL's gun to get Herschel Walker—meant to be the prize for the team finishing with the worst record in the NFL this season—last February, and then signed two NFL first-round draft picks, Quarterback Jim Kelly and Halfback Gary Anderson. The USFL has also signed a handful of veteran NFL stars—including Buffalo Bills Running Back Joe Cribbs and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Quarterback Doug Williams.

Now the NFL is starting to hit back. Mike Brown, Cincinnati's assistant general manager, says he'll try to get players from the Tampa Bay Bandits and Boston Breakers to even the score for the Bandits' signing of Wide Receiver Cris Collinsworth and the Breakers' signing of Tight End Dan Ross to future deals. San Diego owner Gene Klein signed Anderson, a Charger draft pick, to an '83 contract. Anderson was already under contract to the Bandits, but with Klein's financial backing, he filed a suit claiming that when he signed with the USFL, his agent, Dr. Jerry Argovitz, had misrepresented the Chargers' offer and had used him as a lever to get a USFL franchise (the Houston Gamblers) for himself.

Some NFL people are upset about these tactics. "It's incredibly stupid. This is provocation. We don't have to get into things like that in our league," says the Raiders' Al Davis, who once went after NFL stars in the late stages of the old AFL-NFL war.

"The Anderson thing is ridiculous," says the USFL's director of operations, Pete Hadhazy. "Argovitz didn't need Anderson to get himself a franchise. It would have been approved anyway."

Meanwhile, the NFL has formed a three-man committee to look into the potential conflict of interest posed by the DeBartolo family's ownership of teams in each league. Edward DeBartolo Sr. owns the USFL's new Pittsburgh franchise; Eddie Jr. the NFL's 49ers. At the NFL owners' meeting in March, Eddie Jr. was asked to dissuade Papa from entering the rival league, for obvious reasons. "I tried and couldn't," DeBartolo Jr. says. "But if they're worried about inner workings between us, there won't be any."

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