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Original Issue



In his June 14 SI article detailing widespread cocaine use among NFL players, Don Reese assailed league officials for taking an ostrich-like approach to the situation. The initial reaction to Reese's account seemed to bear out his complaint. To be sure, a handful of coaches and front-office people lauded Reese, a former NFL defensive lineman, for coming forward with his story, including Cleveland Coach Sam Rutigliano, who said he believed it was "good to have things like that out in the open," and Chicago General Manager Jim Finks, who said Reese's story "will do nothing but help." But many others, pointing out that Reese was an admitted user of cocaine who served a year in prison for attempting to sell the drug to two Miami undercover policemen, tried to discredit him and to suggest that the problem he described was overstated or, alternatively, that it merely "mirrored" a wider social malaise.

That last reaction missed the implications of Reese's story. Although it's true that cocaine is widely used in society as a whole, Reese made the point that its spread in the close-knit, pressure-packed NFL has been of epidemic proportions. Admittedly, if taken in small quantities, cocaine is no more physically debilitating or addictive than alcohol or amphetamines, but as with those substances, it has the potential for abuse, often creating a potent psychological, if not physical, dependence. And Reese said that many NFL players were indeed abusing cocaine—to such an extent that it was affecting their health and their on-field performance. He went on to warn, "Even if you don't give a damn about the players, if you care about the game you have to be alarmed. What you see on the tube on Sunday afternoon is often a lie. When players are messed up, the game is messed up. The outcome of games is dishonest when playing ability is impaired." Because cocaine is both illegal and costly, the potential also exists, Reese made clear, for another kind of dishonesty. Players who purchase cocaine may come in contact with pushers with ties to organized crime, raising the possibility that, in their frequent desperation for cash, the players might shave points or throw games to underwrite their habit.

Many NFL officials, coaches and players, not to mention quite a few newspaper columnists, seemed to have trouble coming to grips with the menace described by Reese. Some of them sought instead to blame the messenger for the message. Ridiculing Reese's assertion that the San Diego Chargers, for whom he played during the 1981 season, had "a big drug problem," owner Gene Klein called Reese "a poor son of a bitch" and "a pretty sick individual." Former Dolphin star Mercury Morris referred to him as "a big dumb farm kid...and a stupid punk."

In addition to insults, Reese's article provoked fresh disclosures, including one by Bronco Coach Dan Reeves, who told The Denver Post that during last year's training camp he had obtained permission from his players to test their urine for cocaine and other drugs and that no trace of illicit drugs had been found. However, it normally takes no more than 24 hours for cocaine to leave the system, and at least some of the Broncos had apparently had that much advance notice. At any rate, news of the tests incurred the wrath of the Oakland Raiders' Gene Upshaw, president of the National Football League Players Association, whose sensitivity to the problem of cocaine abuse is such that his first reaction to Reese's charges was to question whether they had been a league-inspired "bargaining ploy" in the NFL's current contract talks with the union. NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey meanwhile dismissed Reese's tale as "sensationalism." But Garvey appears to be too out of touch with the rank and file to know one way or another, witness his expression of shock at learning of the Bronco tests, an admission, in effect, that he had been in the dark for nearly a year about the fact that more than 100 players had submitted to them.

In the face of efforts to downplay Reese's charges came a torrent of newspaper stories suggesting that he had been only too accurate. It was disclosed, for example, that nine NFL draft choices who attended a tryout camp in Tampa last January were found to have cocaine and other illegal substances in their urine (The Orlando Sentinel); that former Ram Linebacker Kevin McLain said that "cocaine, marijuana, pills, booze" were "all part of the NFL" and that he had "experimented with just about everything" during his pro football career (Los Angeles Herald Examiner); that law-enforcement officers in Buffalo reported that at least six members of the Bills regularly use cocaine but added that such use was "negligible" when compared to other NFL teams (Buffalo Evening News).

There were also revelations dealing with the New Orleans Saints, for whom Reese played in 1980. Reese said in his article that because of an epidemic of cocaine involvement, the Saints were a "horror show" that season. Both Dick Nolan and Dick Stanfel, the team's head coaches in 1980, responded that they were unaware of any drug use—which just shows how little some coaches know. One of Reese's former Saint teammates, Chuck Muncie, although denying Reese's claim that he used cocaine following his trade to San Diego in 1981, confirmed that he used the drug in New Orleans and estimated that 60% of his teammates had done the same; Reese had put the figure at "more than 50%." Last week the New Orleans Times-Picayune/States-Item reported that as many as a dozen present and former Saints had told federal investigators that they had bought cocaine, in some cases from former New Orleans Running Back Mike Strachan, who was indicted last week for a second time on charges of selling the drug. One of those mentioned by the newspaper was Saint Running Back George Rogers, the 1980 Heisman Trophy winner and the leading NFL rusher last year. Rogers reportedly admitted to a federal grand jury that he spent more than $10,000 on cocaine during the season. Muncie was said to have told authorities that he'd put Rogers in touch with a dealer and lent him money to buy cocaine the night before the Pro Bowl in Honolulu last January and that Rogers had knocked on Muncie's hotel room door to borrow more money for cocaine at 4 a.m. The Pro Bowl began at 11 a.m.

Amid all these disclosures came a dazzling reversal of field by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who had long held the position that drug use was "not a major problem" among NFL players and who, in a June 16 letter to SI, apparently responding to Reese's charges of rampant cocaine involvement in the league, said merely that "drug and alcohol abuse is a problem of today's society." Yet two days later Rozelle was quoted in the New York Daily News as publicly conceding for the first time that illegal drug use among NFL players "could be a larger problem for us than it is in society."

Rozelle said he changed his opinion after discussions with Carl Eller, the former Minnesota Viking star and an admitted alcohol and drug abuser, who underwent rehabilitation and last summer became a paid NFL consultant on drug matters. "Carl has told us enough to indicate that it's not a wave of drug abuse," Rozelle said. "But he gave us his feelings, having gone through it, of what percentage on each team uses drugs." Although Rozelle wouldn't elaborate on those percentages, Eller told the News that, league-wide, up to 40% of NFL players had experimented with cocaine and that perhaps 15% of them—some 200 young men—were "problem users."

It's not clear where Rozelle has been until now. He might easily have deduced that cocaine use was getting out of hand in the NFL from the growing number of players who in recent years had either been convicted of cocaine-related charges (Shelby Jordan, Leroy Mitchell, Reese, Randy Crowder, Bob Hayes, Jim Betterson) or who chose to go public with their problems (Eller, Randy Holloway, Bob Cobb, Hollywood Henderson). These, remember, are only some of the ones who were caught or came forward; it could certainly have been assumed that they were just the tip of the cocaine-use iceberg. Nor should Rozelle have been surprised by Sunday's front-page story in The New York Times in which Charles Jackson, head of the NFL's drug-abuse program, Eller and Dr. Walter Riker, the league's medical consultant for drug abuse, warned that cocaine use had become so prevalent in the league that, as Jackson put it, echoing Reese's concerns, "It posed a possible threat to the integrity of the game." In fact, Eller has been sounding exactly that theme since going on the NFL payroll last summer, and he. Jackson and Riker had all warned of a growing cocaine peril during a two-hour presentation to team owners and club officials at league meetings in Phoenix last March. Asked by one owner to provide a "pessimistic estimate" of the degree of cocaine involvement among players, Jackson replied that the figure could be as high as 50%. Rozelle was at the meeting, a fact that makes his about-face nearly three months later seem a bit tardy.

The NFL's approach to the problem of drug and alcohol abuse has traditionally consisted mainly of efforts to prevent the use of harmful substances by "educational" means. That was fine as far as it went. When it came to rehabilitation, however, the league took a largely passive approach, waiting for players either to be arrested or to ask for help. That relatively few players asked wasn't surprising, because those found to be involved with drugs risked losing their jobs or being otherwise disciplined. Given the prevalence of cocaine use in the NFL, it isn't too sob-sisterly to suggest that the NFL should properly leave punishment to law-enforcement officials and shift its emphasis to treatment. As a purely practical matter, this is the only way it will win the trust of cocaine users, and thereby be in a position to give them the earliest possible treatment.

Some NFLers are clearly more enlightened on the subject of cocaine than others. San Diego owner Klein says of the NFL's cocaine users, "Our policy has been to help anyone who comes forward, but we can't be their keepers," a position that is both shortsighted and, considering the profits his players generate for him, unbecomingly hard-nosed. Ron Meyer, the Patriots' new coach, admits, similarly, to having little patience with drug users, explaining, "I didn't come here to run a Sisters of the Poor charity organization." Last week Meyer fired the Patriots' drug-abuse consultant, Ed DeSaulnier, who, after publication of Reese's story, had said, "Reese told it like it was with the drug problems, which are serious." Although Meyer said he would replace DeSaulnier's drug program with a more effective one, the timing of the ouster scarcely inspired confidence about his intentions.

Given the possibility of recriminations toward cocaine users by coaches of Meyer's persuasion, the NFLPA's Garvey, whose organization has set up its own drug rehabilitation program, can be forgiven for expressing unease over any program run by those "perceived as management." Garvey also raises a far-from-trivial point when he objects to drug tests, especially those administered by management, as an invasion of privacy. But Garvey might weigh his commendable concern for his members' civil rights against the need for a similar concern for their emotional, physical and—because cocaine doesn't come cheap—financial well-being. Cooperation between the NFLPA and management is obviously needed to create a drug-control program that will ensure confidentiality by dealing directly with players, bypassing, whenever possible, both the clubs and NFL headquarters; drug-testing could be administered by an impartial medical board independent of both the league and the NFLPA. Efforts to educate players about the dangers of cocaine should meanwhile be stepped up. A program to keep NFL coaches and league and NFLPA officials informed about the scope of the problem and about how they can lend support to players messed up by drugs is also desirable.

Rozelle, Jackson and other NFL officials point out that the league has become more active in getting cocaine abusers into rehabilitation programs. That change occurred, Jackson says, after Hollywood Henderson came to him for help last year. "Henderson told me other players wouldn't ask for help because they were afraid of getting fined or traded," Jackson relates. "He told me, 'Momma didn't raise no fools.' " Jackson says he later talked to Rozelle, who pledged that the league would "change its position and treat drug abuse as a disease, with the emphasis on rehabilitation."

As the views of Klein and Meyer suggest, however, more safeguards are necessary to insulate drug treatment from the clubs. And Rozelle's supposed conversion notwithstanding, he seems to backslide when he continues to cite as a positive action a $5,000 fine he imposed on Reese as a condition for the latter's returning to the NFL following his prison term—although exactly what purpose was served by gratuitously fining a man already punished under the law isn't clear. Still, the fact that Rozelle, however belatedly, has now acknowledged the scope of the NFL's problem is a hopeful sign that the league may indeed be coming out of the Dark Ages on the subject. This development is applauded by, among others, Eller, who, in speaking out on his own troubles with alcohol and drugs, takes pains to warn of the perils inherent in freebasing cocaine. Freebasing, Eller says, "is enticing to athletes because of the quick rush of feeling you get from it. It's an instant elation, just like you get when you score a touchdown or sack a quarterback."

The urgent challenge confronting the NFL is to prevent the one thrill from obliterating the other.