DRUGS, LAWSUITS, OWNER UNREST . . . : HAS NFL FUMBLED? : After a Golden Era, Rozelle and League Suddenly Are Confronted With Headaches and Headbands

Times Staff Writers

Time was, when the National Football League owners didn't know whether to present Commissioner Pete Rozelle with another raise or a halo. The league ledgers were as black as night, strikes were for baseball and coke was something you put in ice cream floats.

Those were the days when no one knew how to spell litigation, except maybe Raider owner Al Davis and Judge Wapner. When NFL owners assembled, their meetings had all the urgency of a Brownie bake sale.

Now look at them. Among the concerns:

--Negative publicity generated by the disclosure that the New England Patriots, last season's Super Bowl runner-up, had at least 12 players involved in drugs. The information became public one day after 127 million television viewers watched and later wondered how the Chicago Bears won, 46-10.

"I myself didn't know about our drug problems until the day after the Super Bowl, and I've always tried to stay close to my players," said Billy Sullivan, and he owns the Patriots.

--The continuing battle between management and the players association over the issue of random testing and the institution of a new, comprehensive drug plan. The players say random testing is an invasion of privacy. The owners say privacy ended the day those players signed on the dotted line.

Shades, however faint, of the bad-mouthing that preceded the players' strike in 1982.

--The United States Football League suit against the NFL. . . . The St. Louis Cardinals' attempt to seek legal permission to move their franchise. . . . The NFL's appeal in the Raiders case, a case that could cost the league millions of dollars (as much as $70 million), not to mention more embarrassment. . . . A recent Sports Illustrated story about gambling that linked Ram Vice President John Shaw to alleged improprieties. . . . The collective bargaining agreement between management and the players union, which ends after the 1986 season. . . . The upcoming network television contract negotiations.

On and on it goes. What happened to the era when the NFL's biggest worry was whether to use one- or two-inch-high kicking tees?

Even the exalted Rozelle isn't immune from back-biting. Several NFL owners say Rozelle's rule no longer enjoys the same aura it once did. Included in the list is Davis, who lives by the creed: If you don't have something nice to say about Rozelle, say it. That's predictable.

But Rozelle also finds himself answering questions by other owners. It seems as if the lawsuits, the lingering drug situation, the possibility of red ink and the concerns over a restructured collective bargaining agreement and a new, less lucrative television contract have made some owners edgy. Rozelle becomes their target of sorts.

"It just seems that he's being attacked from more different angles than I've ever seen," said Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints. "Every time I turn around, it seems like, owners, media, players association, somebody is attacking the commissioner on different things."

Said Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell: "To be very frank, I'm an NFL loyalist, I believe in our system and I am a supporter of Rozelle. I've had disagreements with him, but I support the system and support the league as it's constituted. But I believe the attacks on Rozelle, to a great extent, have come within our own ranks. And if there has been an erosion of his power base, it has, from some extent, come from within."

Other owners point to Rozelle's record and dismiss any thought of unrest. "There are some factions that challenge him, just to challenge him," said Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., owner of the San Francisco 49ers. "I think he's done a good job overall."

When questioned about league trouble, NFL owners delight in mentioning past difficulties and how they were overcome. Remember the World Football League and how quickly it disappeared? Recall the American Football League and the subsequent merger? Another crisis handled. And how about the 1982 strike? After that debacle, attendance and television ratings are lofty once again.

"The NFL's popularity is as high as it's ever been," said Joe Robbie, owner of the Miami Dolphins.

"You can't draw 127 million viewers for a Super Bowl on a Sunday in a January, which is 6.5 million more than the highest-rated show ever, and say that the league is in trouble," Modell said.

Perhaps, but when asked to rank the NFL's leading troubles, Rozelle said: "We've got a lot of problems. It's tough to rate."

And what of owners' concerns that NFL risks alienating its viewers, fans and television sponsors with a current drug policy that may be perceived as less encompassing than the programs used in the National Basketball Assn. or in major league baseball.

So the NFL may not be in need of a life jacket, but it certainly needs to consider a new stroke.

Some of its problems aren't entirely the league's doing. All three networks--ABC, CBS and NBC--recorded viewing gains in the 1985 season. ABC was up 16%, followed by CBS' 10% increase and NBC's 4% climb. Still, sales are down. It marks the first time since 1971 that network revenues have fallen. The league also didn't ask the USFL to sue.

And the NFL didn't invent drug use. But there it is, slowly eroding years of careful planning and painstaking attention by the NFL to detail and image.

"I think we're going through a period of some uncertainties," Modell said. "Our future course will be determined by outside forces."

True enough, what with the pending court cases and renegotiation of both the collective bargaining agreement and television contract. But could the NFL and Rozelle have eased the stress and uncertainty?

According to several owners and team executives, the answer is yes.

Consider the issues:

DRUGS

Almost all the owners and front office executives asked by The Times said the drug issue was their main concern. "Right at the top of the list," said Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos.

If the situation is left unchecked, Rozelle has told owners, the economic future and the integrity of the league could be compromised. To that end, Rozelle announced a week ago that he was prepared to impose his own drug program, including random testing, if management and the NFL Players Assn. don't come to an agreement by the beginning of summer training camps.

But Rozelle declined to outline specific penalties or, if management and the NFLPA don't agree, how he might sneak the random testing clause by the players union without winding up in court or in front of the National Labor Relations Board, or both.

In general, the owners were pleased with Rozelle's display of authority. But the insistence of a new drug plan could have come sooner, they said.

This from Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers: "Obviously, the Rozelle mystique has been affected . . . but it's great news that he is going to take a stand on drugs. I'm for doing all we can today; let's not sit and wait.

"The biggest issue facing the league is drugs," Spanos said. "The rest of it works itself out. But something has to be done on drugs. Rozelle has taken a strong stand, and he's taking a big step in that direction. The step has been forced on him. He should have taken it sooner. As he now admits, he can't sit back and wait any longer."

Said Robbie: "I think what (Rozelle) is recommending now is good. Quite naturally, I wish it would have been much sooner."

Adds Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs: "I would have felt better five years ago if we would have had a (drug) program."

The argument goes that if Rozelle can implement his own program for "the integrity of the game" now, he could have done it long before the Patriots' went public the day after the Super Bowl.

At the heart of the matter is random testing and rights of privacy. If the owners, for the most part, had their way, random testing would be instituted tomorrow. The Raiders' Davis is one of the few owners who has reservations about the concept. Davis suggests that random testing may compromise the rights of the individual.

The NFLPA, meanwhile, reports that about 75% of its membership is against random testing. What you have here are the real makings of an impasse.

"I think it's important to get the players' cooperation," said Rankin Smith, Sr., owner of the Atlanta Falcons. "But even without it, something has to be done. The rank and file may be asking, is there going to be an Inquisition? Not really, but we're way past due for random testing. The players shouldn't view testing as punitive--it's to help."

Said Sullivan: "We have an obligation to the fans who made this the premier league in sports history to see that players are free of illegal substances."

The NFLPA has said random testing, among other objections, would infringe on the players' rights of privacy. The argument has few supporters among owners and team executives.

"This is a most serious matter and not a bargaining chip for 1987," said George Young, general manager of the New York Giants. "It has to be dealt with now. I think Gene Upshaw (NFLPA executive director) understands this better than is coming across. He's in a bind because of his constituency saying they favor strong penalties but no testing. That's like saying they could put you in jail for five years if you have venereal disease, but they can't test you to see if you have it."

Said DeBartolo: "This issue can't be looked at like it was one of those little issues we had in the collective bargaining agreement a few years ago, something that has to be negotiated. This has to be faced. Our sport in general could be in jeopardy."

Beyond the generalities are the fears by owners that their teams may have drug users--and the owners can't find out without "reasonable cause" or detection during a preseason urinalysis.

The Saints' Benson said he asked his team to submit to postseason drug tests. The NFLPA advised Saint players, as it did all teams, to decline. Benson went ahead and tested front-office personnel and the Saint coaching staff. "I even took the test," he said.

"The American people don't want anything false out there," he said. "They want their superstars and they want to have heroes. They don't want to wake up and find out that it's drugs, whatever, that made him like that. They won't accept that."

For the moment, teams have to depend on the bargained means for testing. The Cleveland Browns have gone a step further with their Inner Circle program, which guarantees confidentiality, treatment and counseling to those players who voluntarily step forward with a drug problem.

That's all fine and good, Modell said, "but I can not tell you, with certainty, that my team is clean, totally. And I will not know that, never, unless there is some kind of random mandatory testing."

Then there is the 49ers' DeBartolo, who says: "I know that our team is clean. I really can say that with all due deference with good conscience. That doesn't mean there aren't problems or potential problems anywhere."

Asked if any NFL team is truly free of drug users, Modell said: "Nobody can say that. Anybody who says that is a liar."

There is also the matter of the Patriots, who angered some owners with their handling of the post-Super Bowl drug situation. It's difficult to argue for confidentiality when a team confirms to a newspaper the names of players who were alleged drug users.

The NFL didn't help matters. First it said it had prior knowledge of the Patriot problem. Later, it offered a feeble retraction.

The Patriot incident may have done more to harm the NFL's credibility than it imagines. Sure, 300,000 million Chinese recently watched a replay of the Patriot-Bear game, but were they told of the team's alleged drug problem beforehand?

"Any time you have the issue brought out to the public, it puts a dent in the image you try to portray," said Patrick Sullivan, the Patriots general manager. "Our point of view is that the image and public relations is secondary to getting the issue resolved.

"In the end, we'll recover and we'll have a totally clean operation. The public will be supportive of that and the team will be successful because of it."

TELEVISION

When Rozelle met with reporters last week, his first words were not about the drug issue but about television ratings. Television is the lifeblood of the NFL. It is what accounts for the hefty league coffers and the quick ascension of the sport.

The current five-year, $2.1-billion network television contract concludes at the end of the 1986 season. Normally, this would be fine news, another chance to add to league and team bank accounts.

But if the NFL is to believed, there are problems. According to Jack Donlan of the NFL Management Council, it will take $3.5 billion during the next five years to meet players costs.

Can the NFL generate that kind of financial interest once more from the networks?

"We'd probably have to put on provocative sex shows," Rozelle said.

By all indications, Rozelle said he doesn't expect the NFL to reap the same type of deal it secured during the last two television negotiations, deals that increased at least twofold from previous agreements.

While NFL ratings are up from 1985, revenues are not.

"We could point to our ratings and say, 'Hell, we've done a great job,' " Rozelle said. "On the other hand, if we haven't sold well, (the networks) are not going to be in a financial position to necessarily agree with us."

And there's the rub. The NFL is used to prosperity, not penny pinching. Their belts have few holes.

"That's one of the things I've found out about professional football, and I guess professional sports in general, that owners tend to spend all the money they have and they don't worry too much about saving any," the Broncos' Bowlen said.

Or as they say in the NFL: The average profit margin ain't what it used to be.

Modell and Rozelle will represent the league in the television negotiations. What they can offer is a game that remains strong and with a large audience base. Can those points negate the possible fears of the networks and its sponsors?

"No, we're not in trouble," Modell said. "We've been through this before."

LITIGATION

Asked why he sued the NFL, the Raiders' Davis said last week: "Their arrogance was just too much. Somebody had to take them on. They were liars and they were corrupt."

Soon, the NFL also may be millions poorer if the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rules in favor of Davis. Also scheduled to begin soon is the $1.32-billion USFL antitrust suit against the NFL. And the NFL hasn't forgotten about the suit brought against it by the Cardinals.

"My own feeling has always been that we are in court far too often," Robbie said. "There have been cases litigated that should have been settled. The NFL should return to the playing fields and stay away from Congress and the courts as much as possible."

Said Modell: "I think we ought to abolish the college draft and draft lawyers."

Robbie declined to say which cases should have been settled beforehand. DeBartolo was less hesitant.

"The Al Davis thing could have been handled differently," he said. "I'm not in total agreement with the scenario. But that's hindsight.

"Now the USFL, we've got to handle that straight on," he said. "They're taking a shot at the NFL. I don't think their lawsuit can hold water. I don't think there's any question we'll win this lawsuit. That will put everything back in perspective, in my opinion."

OWNER UNREST

About that halo.

Rozelle remains the man who brought the NFL out of the Dark Ages and led it by the hand during the '70s. Things haven't gone as smoothly in the '80s.

Already, Rozelle has dealt with a players' strike, several lawsuits, competition from the USFL, increasing operating costs and now, the drug issue. It's enough to put a few chinks in anyone's armor, most certainly Rozelle's.

Ownership changes also have contributed to the NFL's problems. The league no longer is composed solely of football families. According to Modell, who ranks second only to Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers in ownership seniority, the changes help account for the occasional challenges of league authority.

"The nature of an ownership has changed," Modell said. "And for whatever reasons, and that's only one part of it, there has been a subtle, not deliberate, subtle, attack on a system that we know.

"I remain a loyalist to the NFL system as we know it," he said. "But I can not say I have across-the-board support on that. I think I do with the old guard. But the old guard can meet in a phone booth, that's how small it's gotten."

Despite its troubles, and there are many, the NFL insists it is in good hands and headed in the right direction. Or is it? Now everyone knows strikes aren't just for baseball and coke isn't for floats.

'It just seems that he's being attacked from more different angles than I've ever seen. Every time I turn around, it seems like, owners, media, players association, somebody is attacking the commissioner on different things.'

--TOM BENSON, owner New Orleans Saints.

'The biggest issue facing the league is drugs. The rest of it works itself out. But something has to be done on drugs. Rozelle has taken a strong stand, and he's taking a big step in that direction. The step has been forced on him. He should have taken it sooner. As he now admits, he can't sit back and wait any longer.'--ALEX SPANOS, owner San Diego Chargers

'We could point to our ratings and say, 'Hell, we've done a great job.' On the other hand, if we haven't sold well, (the networks) are not going to be in a financial position to necessarily agree with us.'--PETE ROZELLE

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