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NFL Has Communication Problem : Management and Union Need to Talk About Drug Issue

Associated Press

The suggestion came after Pete Rozelle had once again been quizzed repeatedly about the National Football League’s drug problem.

“Why doesn’t he do what Peter Ueberroth did with baseball and what several people suggested Lyndon Johnson do with the Vietnam War?” a reporter asked. “Declare that there is no problem and go on to the next thing.”

Indeed, why not?

For if the commissioner and the NFL are to be blamed for the off-field conduct of Reggie Rogers, Lawrence Taylor, David Croudip and the other players who have run afoul of addictive and often illegal substances, then every business in America should be held accountable for employees who pour their salaries into a shot glass or white powder.

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In fact, Rozelle is caught in the middle between those who think a 30-day suspension is too short and a union that is ready to go to court to prevent him from imposing even that. The 30-day penalties handed out to second-time offenders this season are only the result of a ruling by an arbitrator in a grievance filed by the NFL Players Assn. that watered down what the league wanted to do.

In fact, the NFL is trying to temper its punishment with treatment, just as many businesses do.

Last week, Rozelle told owners and club executives that he wants each team to have direct contact with drug and alcohol treatment facilities in their areas and doctors who specialize in such treatment rather than leaving the problem in the hands of team physicians--most of them orthopedic specialists.

Athletes involved with drugs are more visible, so their involvement makes news, but are they more drug-prone? Twenty suspensions out of nearly 2,500 players tested in camp would suggest not, although most of those suspended were relatively prominent. When teams catch lesser players doing drugs, they’re simply cut, and nobody knows the difference.

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In fact, the NFL’s drug policy has become a captive of its labor policy.

Unlike most businesses trying to deal with similar problems, the NFL doesn’t have the cooperation of its union.

Two weeks after Atlanta’s Croudip died from apparently ingesting cocaine in a drink; one week after Detroit’s Reggie Rogers was charged with vehicular homicide after an apparently alcohol-related accident that killed three teen-agers, the NFLPA indicated it would file suit to stop drug testing.

The NFLPA’s contention is that the 1982 contract--technically no longer in effect but still being honored on many issues--does not allow random drug testing. And that, it says, is just what the league is doing.

The contract does, however, allow drug testing for cause--a previous positive test or behavior that would indicate a problem. That, the league contends is enough.

In fact, the NFL knows it’s on shaky ground in the courts.

“We’re aware that the players might go to court and get this knocked out in a minute,” said Rozelle. “What we really want is an agreement with the union that would benefit both parties.”

Would it?

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Whatever the civil liberties ramifications of the drug-testing rule, only one of the 20 suspensions--the one imposed on Mike Bell of the Chiefs last week--has come since the original spate in training camp and the first three weeks of the regular season.

“I think the suspensions have had an impact on players,” Rozelle said. “Because they seemed to have slackened off since the start of the season, I would hope we would have fewer such cases for the rest of the season.”

Wouldn’t it be better for the union, whose members include Rogers and included Croudip and Rogers’ brother Don, who died two years ago of a cocaine overdose, to sit down and talk?

Particularly if there are more deaths while a judge somewhere ponders how to deal with a situation for which neither side is to blame.


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