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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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I want you to be the first to know that I'm starting a new football league. It's going to be called the FFL. That stands for February Football League. My FFL will fill the very real need professional football fans have for the game in the one uncovered month of the year. I conducted a feasibility study, and the results were that the FFL is feasible. Why should pro football fans have to watch basketball games or bowling during those 28 days—29 in leap years—between the last month of the NFL season and the first of the USFL and IFL schedules? What's the IFL? Just wait, I'll tell you. Sure, my FFL is a brand-new concept, but, hey, there are a lot of players out there.

O.K., stop laughing. But if the IFL, which stands for International Football League, is serious (and they say they're just one little step away from a $21 million TV contract and a 1984 season), what's wrong with my FFL? The IFL hopes to launch a 12-team league in March, charging headlong into turf now occupied by the USFL. The USFL was so satisfied with its maiden season that it has expanded by 50%, from 12 teams to 18. Throw in the 28 NFL franchises and you've got 58 teams playing pro football, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, in 1984. "I think they're going to sign everything that breathes," says NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Rozelle has not yet assessed the possible impact of the IFL—or even my FFL—on the NFL. He's still trying to determine the damage from the USFL, which has caused a healthy upward hike in NFL salaries. Every 20 minutes another NFL veteran renegotiates or extends an existing contract. Salary packages for 1983 first-round draft choices were up by an average of $620,000, or more than 60% over 1982, according to newspaper surveys, with the trickle-down effect raising the paychecks of lower choices as well. In fact, the highest-paid player in NFL history is a rookie, Quarterback John Elway, who signed a five-year, $5 million deal with the Denver Broncos.

"Sure, the USFL has raised our payroll," Rozelle says, "but it has raised theirs, too. And now they've got 18 mouths to feed, not 12. I still have to give them an incomplete. Let's see how they do next year—if their TV ratings increase significantly, if ABC renews the contract and gives them more money."

To complicate matters, the USFL will have the IFL biting at its flank. "We're holding our draft Jan. 5, or one week before the USFL's," says former L.A. Ram Coach Ray Malavasi, who's now an IFL consultant but soon should be named coach and general manager of its Southern California franchise. "If they hold theirs earlier, we'll move ours ahead. We plan to stay one week ahead of them."

"The USFL," says Joe Browne, one of Rozelle's lieutenants, "now represents the Establishment."

Last year Rozelle rated the USFL as No. 4 on his list of worries. The impending Players Association strike was No. 1. The Oakland Raiders' lawsuit and move to L.A. was No. 2. Drugs were No. 3. Now drugs have moved into No. 1, just ahead of the USFL in No. 2, and the Raiders and the strike are notations on the past performance chart, although both left a residue of bitterness and ill will.

The drug situation is ugly. The Offense of the '80s is now cocaine possession. Once upon a time the NFL, concerned with its image, tried to downplay the drug problem. What the heck, Rozelle kept saying, the world out there is worse. Then came the era of enlightenment. We'll help you. We'll provide rehab centers. Check yourself in, come out clean, rejoin your club. We won't even release your name. But the stories continued, and the busts. Even five members of America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, have been implicated in a federal investigation. SOUTH AMERICA'S TEAM, DRUGSTORE COWBOYS read the headlines. When rookie Jim Jeff-coat, Dallas' No. 1 draft pick, stood up in the training camp dining hall to sing for the team, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town was the song he chose, but he changed the words to The FBI Is Comin' to Town. He was greeted by a stony silence.

Agents for the Drug Enforcement Administration did come to Carlisle, Pa., the training site of the Washington Redskins, and practically arrested All-Pro Safety Tony Peters on the practice field. Peters was subsequently indicted on charges that he acted as the go-between in a cocaine sale. Federal authorities said Peters received payoffs totaling $3,000. And this was a man who had just signed a four-year, $1 million contract and had collected $80,000 in playoff money when Washington won the '83 Super Bowl.

Rozelle toughened the league's drug policy, establishing the NFL as a law enforcement agency as well as a rehabilitation center. If you want to get off drugs and you come for help, you'll get it. But if the Feds nail you, the NFL nails you, too. Rozelle drove the point home by suspending four players guilty of drug involvement—Fullback Pete Johnson and Defensive End Ross Browner of Cincinnati, St. Louis Linebacker E.J. Junior and New Orleans Defensive Back Greg Stemrick—for the entire preseason and the first four games of the regular season. Their salaries were docked for that period; in Browner's case that amounted to a $35,225 fine.

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