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
August 31, 1983

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.

In the old days the Players Association's Ed Garvey would have blistered the commissioner for such action. How can you impose your own sentence when the court has already ruled? Perhaps there would have been a reference to racial imbalance—the great bulk of the cocaine stories have dealt with black players, and the four suspended players are black. But Garvey left the NFLPA this summer to become Wisconsin's deputy attorney general, and Gene Upshaw, who retired at the end of last season as a player after 16 years with the Raiders and has replaced Garvey as executive director, sees the situation differently.

"Rozelle has control over the integrity of the game, and it's within his right to do it," Upshaw said. "He talked to me a week before he came down with his ruling. I talked to my player reps. We decided on a hands-off policy. The fact that all the players suspended are black is something I'm very conscious of. So's Rozelle. I've had people from the Black Caucus in Washington call me about it. I told them I don't believe this reflects a black-white situation, but it certainly doesn't look good. Drugs are becoming more and more evident in the game. We've got to do something about it." Rozelle says, "I've probably talked to Gene Upshaw more in the last two weeks than I talked to Ed Garvey in six months."

Each NFL club is facing the drug problem in its own way. Cleveland Coach Sam Rutigliano has set up a model program for eight problem players on the Browns; these members of the so-called Inner Circle meet every week with Rutigliano, retired Cleveland stars Calvin Hill and Paul Warfield, as well as a psychiatrist and a religious adviser. Dallas tightened security at its Thousand Oaks, Calif. training camp, hiring guards to patrol the dorm. Fort Landry, they called the place.

The problem is, the NFL always has had a kind of drug culture. Heavy drinkers, even problem drinkers, were good ol' boys a few seasons back. Then the needles, the painkilling shots, joined alcohol as an accepted drug against the ever-present pain of postgame Mondays. Then came anabolic steroids and amphetamines, often dispensed with the full knowledge of the club. A way of life was taking hold: Pop it, drink it or shoot it and you'll feel better. Cocaine was the natural offspring, particularly with young people who had money to toss around.

Now there's even more money. All of a sudden, salaries that looked good two years ago seem anemic. Redskin Defensive End Dexter Manley, coming off a good season, wanted his salary upped in '83. As a fifth-round draft choice in 1981, he had accepted a $150,000, three-year package—about average. This year he asked for the $318,750 a season that Cowboy Defensive Tackle Randy White is getting. Manley settled for an estimated $200,000 a year. Until recently, White was the highest-paid defensive lineman in football, the first to top $300,000; now Miami's Bob Baumhower has sent White into the deep shadows with a $2 million, four-year package. The Giants' No. 1 pick in '81, Linebacker Lawrence Taylor, signed a reported $1.45 million, six-year deal as a rookie. Veterans were incensed that the club would pay a first-year player that much. There was talk of a walkout. Now things have come full circle. Taylor was a holdout for the first three weeks of training camp this summer. Hey, he said, the Chargers are giving their top pick, Linebacker Billy Ray Smith, $2.4 million for four years. I've made All-Pro two years and he hasn't played a down. Where's the justice?

In the NFL, free-agent movement is severely restricted, so salaries skyrocket only when there's a rival league in the bidding. For years, NFL players had been underpaid, but now the pendulum is swinging their way. The USFL jumped the NFL's gun to get Herschel Walker—meant to be the prize for the team finishing with the worst record in the NFL this season—last February, and then signed two NFL first-round draft picks, Quarterback Jim Kelly and Halfback Gary Anderson. The USFL has also signed a handful of veteran NFL stars—including Buffalo Bills Running Back Joe Cribbs and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Quarterback Doug Williams.

Now the NFL is starting to hit back. Mike Brown, Cincinnati's assistant general manager, says he'll try to get players from the Tampa Bay Bandits and Boston Breakers to even the score for the Bandits' signing of Wide Receiver Cris Collinsworth and the Breakers' signing of Tight End Dan Ross to future deals. San Diego owner Gene Klein signed Anderson, a Charger draft pick, to an '83 contract. Anderson was already under contract to the Bandits, but with Klein's financial backing, he filed a suit claiming that when he signed with the USFL, his agent, Dr. Jerry Argovitz, had misrepresented the Chargers' offer and had used him as a lever to get a USFL franchise (the Houston Gamblers) for himself.

Some NFL people are upset about these tactics. "It's incredibly stupid. This is provocation. We don't have to get into things like that in our league," says the Raiders' Al Davis, who once went after NFL stars in the late stages of the old AFL-NFL war.

"The Anderson thing is ridiculous," says the USFL's director of operations, Pete Hadhazy. "Argovitz didn't need Anderson to get himself a franchise. It would have been approved anyway."

Meanwhile, the NFL has formed a three-man committee to look into the potential conflict of interest posed by the DeBartolo family's ownership of teams in each league. Edward DeBartolo Sr. owns the USFL's new Pittsburgh franchise; Eddie Jr. the NFL's 49ers. At the NFL owners' meeting in March, Eddie Jr. was asked to dissuade Papa from entering the rival league, for obvious reasons. "I tried and couldn't," DeBartolo Jr. says. "But if they're worried about inner workings between us, there won't be any."

"It's strictly a business decision," DeBartolo Sr. says. "Our corporation owns the Pittsburgh franchises in the NHL and in indoor soccer, plus control of the Civic Arena. I just felt that owning the football franchise would be conducive to an eventual all-encompassing cable-TV package. It's not a matter of being in competition with the 49ers or Steelers or anyone else. I see no conflict of any kind."

But as president of the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., won't Eddie Jr. have a business interest in both an NFL and USFL team?

"On the surface it would seem so," Eddie Jr. says. "But the USFL team will be strictly under my father. It's complicated."

It might get a lot more complicated if Jr.'s backup quarterback, Matt Cavanaugh, plays out his option in '84. As an ex-star at the University of Pittsburgh he'd be a good catch for Sr.'s team.

In sum, the situation in the NFL is that salaries are shooting through the roof; drug use is rampant; and there seems to be a rival league on every corner. Furthermore, attendance was off in the exhibition season. All 12 games in league cities on its first weekend drew smaller crowds than the preseason openers in those cities last year. The Jets and Giants sell some 125,000 season tickets but drew only 60,232 to their August 7 game at Giants Stadium—14,332 fewer than in 1982.

The NFL has so many headaches that now's the time to go after the Establishment with my FFL. February Football, here we come.

PHOTOJohnson (46) will be out of the Bengal picture during his suspension for drug involvement. TWO PHOTOSCribbs (20, top) will be joining Walker (bottom) next season in the rush for USFL gold. TWO PHOTOSRookie Smith (left) got so much dough that Taylor, once a big-bucks rookie himself, held out.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)