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Original Issue

A Test With Nothing But Tough Questions

Should the NFL's players be checked for drugs by urinalysis? By and large, management says yes, the players no

Now that it has become evident that drug abuse is a pervasive problem in the National Football League, battle lines have been drawn on the explosive issue of how best to deal with it—and specifically on whether players should be tested. The debate involves heated disagreement over the question of privacy, the subject of testing techniques and, indeed, matters of honor. At present the opposing sides are far apart. San Diego Coach Don Coryell says, "Anybody who won't take a drug test just doesn't want to play football." Gene Upshaw, the Raiders' veteran lineman and president of the NFL Players Association, asserts, "To suggest urinalysis [the standard method of detecting drugs] for players is an insult to our integrity. We will not participate."

By and large, NFL management favors testing. Most players oppose it. Undoubtedly, how the league ultimately resolves the question will affect how other professional sports in the U.S. deal with it. At the moment, only the NFL seems to be giving the issue serious consideration.

"Athletes will put anything into their bodies they think might help them," says Dr. S. Joseph Mule, one of the nation's leading authorities on drug testing and laboratory director of New York State's Division of Substance Abuse Services. "Coke sets up lots of high-level aggression and makes a football player ready to go out and kill. Amphetamines do an even better job of instilling levels of rage and aggression. There is no question about the need for urinalysis in football if they want a clean game." Jack Manton, an Atlanta lawyer who represents a number of pro athletes, concurs. "This drug situation is going to destroy pro sports if something isn't done," he says. "Who's going to want to take their kids to see a bunch of drug abusers?"

As more and more NFL players publicly acknowledge that they have drug problems, the demand for testing grows. And there is ample precedent for it. Authorities in many other sports, including track and field, swimming and boxing, have for years used urinalysis to detect drugs, and rarely has an athlete refused to comply. "In my sport it's guilty until proven innocent," says high jumper Dwight Stones. "I say test every competitor in every event at every meet or the hell with it." Adds Dr. David Cowan, deputy director of drug testing for the International Olympic Committee, "Ninety-nine percent of our athletes see it as a sensible move that can only help improve athletics and the fairness of their sport."

To be sure, some NFL players agree with Raider Running Back Greg Pruitt, who says, "If you've got nothing to hide, why worry about urinalysis," and with Denver Linebacker Tom Jackson, who says, "Let's do the test, run all the results in the paper, and then everybody can judge for himself." Still, the majority side with Upshaw and NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey, who maintains that "forcing the players to take a drug test is illegal."

But is it? According to Alan F. Westin, a professor of government at Columbia specializing in employee rights and constitutional law, "The courts would have to weigh the owners' claim that drug testing is necessary to protect the integrity of the game and the public's perception of the game versus the players' claim that the testing forces them to engage in a shameful and improper disclosure of their personal condition." The NFLPA has cited inalienable "rights of privacy" in resisting management's position. Such rights aren't clearly spelled out in the Constitution or in federal statutes, and according to Elmer Oettinger, chairman of the American Bar Association's privacy committee, the privacy question "is in sort of a mess, or at least uncertain." On the state level, at which any postarbitrator complaint would probably be heard, the laws aren't any more helpful than federal statutes.

Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard and author of The Best Defense, says, "Some states simply don't respect the right of privacy, and some states are backing away from it." The states that don't back away will have many and varied precedents to consider. Successful defenses of an employer's decision to test for drugs have often been based upon the "greater good" doctrine. That is, in some cases the public at large benefits from the possible infringement of an individual's rights. A bus company, say, can routinely check its drivers, and a cop, say, can give a motorist suspected of being intoxicated a Breathalyzer test because the public safety is of paramount importance.

"Greater good—that's an exceptional legal doctrine," says Dershowitz. "You'd be really hard pressed to fit that rationale to the NFL.... Driving is a helluva lot more dangerous than punting."

However, Westin points out that the owners could claim that without drug testing "the public's trust and confidence in the sport could be jeopardized, which would hurt the integrity and thereby the profitability of the game." He also notes that, as media coverage of the issue increases, the owners have an ever stronger argument that nothing short of stern measures are needed to ensure confidence in the sport.

Garvey, for one, doesn't think these points will ever be argued in court. Nor does he believe that, if all other contractual disputes between the owners and the players are resolved, the drug testing issue will lead to a strike. "It will never get to that posture," he says. "Management doesn't feel that strongly about it." Nonetheless, Vince Lombardi Jr., assistant executive director of the NFL Management Council, states, "We will not sign any agreement that gives up our right to drug test."

Invasion of privacy is only one of several objections the players have to drug testing. The one most frequently heard is that it is degrading, embarrassing and dehumanizing. "They're bringing football players and racehorses really close together," says St. Louis Tackle Dan Dierdorf. "Next, they'll want to put us on a block, look at our teeth and brand our arms." However, not only do athletes in a number of other sports submit to urinalysis, but almost the entire populace does so as well, as part of routine physical exams. Perhaps the players would feel more at ease if, as Tampa Bay Quarterback Doug Williams suggests, the coaches, general managers and owners joined the players in taking tests.

Some players question whether urinalysis results are always accurate. "They make mistakes in the lab all the time," says Upshaw. As with any scientific procedure, the possibility of human error exists, but urinalysis has become extremely sophisticated in recent years. The most advanced testing system utilizes a machine called a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, and it's virtually infallible. A GC/MS costs up to $250,000 and can be programmed to identify almost any substance in urine. Here's how it works. After the urine sample is prepared for analysis, a lab worker injects it into the machine. The sample is vaporized and driven by an inert gas through a flexible column coated with chemicals that separate different components of the specimen. How long a substance in the sample takes to travel through the column is the key to identifying it. For example, cocaine has a certain retention time, amphetamines another. Then, in what amounts to a confirming identification, the urine sample enters the mass spectrometer, where it's fragmented and, in turn, makes its own "fingerprint," which positively identifies the sample. The results emerge from the GC/MS on a computer printout.

In addition to the GC/MS, which was used at both the 1980 Summer and Winter Olympics, there are several less expensive urinalysis machines that are perfectly adequate for detecting drugs. To guard against error, Mule, whose lab does approximately 1,700 urinalyses a day with EMIT machines, which are more common than GC/MSs, suggests that samples taken from players be divided in two vials so that the second can be used for confirmation in another test if the first sample turns up positive. In Olympic competition a second test is always run if the first is positive. If the NFL adopts testing, Mule says, it should establish its own labs or contract the work to just one to ensure consistency. Samples probably should be taken within two hours after a game. Though traces of cocaine and amphetamines remain in the system for up to 48 hours, these drugs can be detected more easily with an earlier sample.

But what about the possibility of hanky-panky? "All a guy would have to do is hand the bottle to a friend and ask him to fill it for him," says Buffalo Linebacker Jim Haslett. There's an easy solution to that: Simply have a team or league official watch players as they give their samples and then collect the vials, which is the procedure in the Olympics.

Some players say their biggest objection isn't with the test itself, but with the way the results might be used. Cincinnati Linebacker Reggie Williams says, "What do you do if you find a player who has a problem? At what point do you make it public? At what point do you endanger his career? At what point do you say this has harmed his playing abilities? These are questions that concern a lot of players, and they remain unanswered." Players are apprehensive about hard-line attitudes of coaches like Dick Vermeil of Philadelphia and Bum Phillips of New Orleans who have said they won't tolerate any players on their teams who have a drug problem.

Management in most other major professional sports in the U.S. hasn't taken a firm stand on the issue. In baseball, Ray Grebey, director of the owners' Player Relations Committee, says the matter is left up to the teams. They tend to deal with it by means of signs put up in clubhouses. The NHL is even more apathetic. "Why should we think there's a problem?" says league president John Ziegler. "Nobody has a responsibility to someone who chooses to break the law." As for tennis, two weeks ago, in an article he wrote for The Washington Post, Arthur Ashe advocated random testing of players at tournaments. But in light of the fact that the game has no overall governing body and has trouble even coping with players who raise their voices at linesmen, it's unrealistic to assume that tennis will institute procedures to deal with a potential problem of this scope anytime soon. Golf has yet to give the subject a thought.

The most enlightened of the U.S. pro sports in this respect is basketball. The NBA retained Control Data Corp.'s Life Extension Institute last year to help players solve a variety of personal problems, including drug-related ones. The institute has a toll-free 800 number that's answered 24 hours a day. Last season, 42 of the league's 275 players called. All calls are confidential.

However, Russell T. Granik, general counsel to the NBA, says, "We have to take stricter measures regarding players who don't come forward voluntarily. Knick Guard Mike Newlin agrees. "Players are spending the owners' money to buy drugs so that the players can perform at less than their capabilities for the owners," he says. "It doesn't make sense. The players should get off their self-righteous high horse, take the drug test and play the game." But Larry Fleisher, general counsel for the players association, says of urinalysis, "I'm embarrassed the NBA would even bring it up. The purpose is to help people, not to hurt or punish. There's no way the players' association would agree to urinalysis."

Without exception, the sports that do have a testing procedure take it very seriously. At the 1976 Winter Olympics a Czechoslovakian team doctor was barred from the Games for life because he gave stimulants to a hockey player. In major international swimming and track meets and at the Olympics, the top finishers, usually the first four, as well as other entrants selected at random, are tested after every event. Drug testing began at the Olympics in 1968, and since then 22 athletes at the Games have been caught taking substances ranging from alcohol to amphetamines to steroids. Dozens of substances are on the IOC's forbidden list. In addition, a drug doesn't even have to be listed to be considered verboten. According to the chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee Sports Medicine Council, Dr. Irving Dardik, other substances can be banned on the spot and cause the disqualification of a competitor. "The IOC has a small medical committee—and it can work quickly," he says.

The best known recent case in track and field of an athlete's testing positive for drugs involves U.S. discus thrower Ben Plucknett. His world record of 237'4", set in July 1981 in Stockholm, was disallowed and he was barred from international competition for life (a prohibition that has been commuted) because steroids showed up in one of his urine samples taken 5½ months earlier at a meet in New Zealand.

Cycling tests top finishers at most national and international meets, and soccer checks at the World Cup. No players tested positive at this year's World Cup, but in 1978 the sport banned Scotland's Willy Johnston for life when traces of fencamfamine, an amphetamine, were discovered. The North American Soccer League does no testing.

In boxing, urinalysis has been standard procedure for at least 25 years. Initially, physicians looked primarily for blood and albumin proteins in the urine, either of which would signal kidney damage. Beginning in 1976, urinalysis was used to search for drugs as well. Today the World Boxing Council requires urinalysis after all world title fights. But the rival World Boxing Association doesn't administer drug tests at all.

The New York State Athletic Commission mandates that fighters be tested for drugs when they're licensed and at an annual physical. In addition, any boxer on a card in the state is subject to random testing before a fight, and the commission exercises that right regularly. However, the New York commission is the only one in the country with a full-time medical department. It's probably the most conscientious in monitoring the fitness of boxers. Nevada, for instance, doesn't check fighters for drugs except after championship bouts.

Dr. Edwin Campbell, director of the New York commission's medical department, says he has never detected drugs in the urinalysis of a boxer, because "an athlete who realizes he will be checked thoroughly is going to stay in line." But others have been caught elsewhere, most notably Muhammad Ali after he lost a WBC heavyweight title bout to Larry Holmes in Las Vegas in 1980. Urinalysis detected an opiate and a tranquilizing agent, phenothiazine, in Ali's system. Ali's doctor, Charles Lee Williams Sr., said the drugs were present because of a sedative and pain-killer he had prescribed immediately after the fight. Ali also revealed that before the bout he had taken large doses of Thyrolar, a synthetic hormone, to control a hypothyroid condition, without notifying the Nevada commission. Ali turned in his license amid threats that the state would revoke it, and the matter was closed.

More recently, after William (Caveman) Lee was knocked out in the first round of his WBC middleweight title fight with Marvelous Marvin Hagler last March, a urinalysis uncovered morphine and quinine in his system. "For the life of 'me, I don't see what a boxer can get from morphine except going to sleep," says Campbell. He says the drug prevents a fighter from reacting with the speed he needs, which might help explain the brevity of Lee's appearance. As for the quinine, Campbell says that Lee could have taken it to prevent muscle cramps and aches brought on by fatigue during the fight. The quinine also could have been in Lee's system because it's often used to cut morphine that's sold illegally. Lee is scheduled to appear before the New Jersey commission on Aug. 24.

So what should be done, then, in pro sports, in which the livelihood of athletes could well hang on the outcome of urinalysis? The vital question—and the toughest to answer—isn't so much whether to test but who should do what about athletes who abuse drugs. That's the question the various leagues and players' associations should address.


The gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer is the most advanced urinalysis machine. A technician programs it and injects a sample, which is then analyzed. The results of the GC phase (above) are confirmed by those of the MS phase (top).


Mulé's lab runs 1,700 urinalyses a day on EMIT machines.


Coryell: Players should take the test or a walk.


Williams: What should be done with the results?


Upshaw: The players won't participate in testing.


Urinalysis uncovered morphine in Lee's system after his brief encounter with Hagler.