The NFL And Drugs: Fumbling For A Game Plan

New England coach Raymond Berry, upset by inaction, tried to combat drugs and touched off a post-Super Bowl uproar
February 10, 1986

The overriding question raised by last week's post-Super Bowl drug controversy is this: Is either the NFL or the NFL Players Association really serious about confronting pro football's continuing drug problems? As stories implicating as many as 12 New England Patriots in the use of cocaine and marijuana hit the nation's sports pages, there was NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii saying, "I wish everybody were still talking about the Bears and the 43 ratings [actually the TV rating was 48.3]." But Rozelle acknowledged, referring to the NFL's ongoing drug-testing debate, "The ball is in my court." That only served to raise another question: Just where has the ball been all along, Pete?

The New England situation was labeled "a mess" and a "sad affair" by Raiders managing general partner AI Davis, who lit into his nemesis Rozelle for failing to deal effectively with drug use by NFL players. "The league needs a strong program and someone with the guts to enforce it," said Davis, adding that "if we don't administer severe penalties—tough, major penalties, as well as rehabilitation—we will lose the fight." Nearly four years have passed since former NFL defensive lineman Don Reese gave details of widespread NFL drug involvement (SI, June 14, 1982), and in that time the league and the NFLPA have done little about the situation.

The NFL's existing drug policy was adopted as part of the league's collective-bargaining agreement in the aftermath of the Reese revelations. It provides for preseason drug testing of all players and subsequent confidential testing when management has "reasonable cause" to believe an athlete is using drugs. It rules out spot testing for drugs.

But the NFL policy lacks both the carrot (there is no provision for players with drug problems to voluntarily come forward for treatment) and the stick (successively firmer punishment for relapses) contained in the plan adopted by the NBA. Accordingly, coaches and other team officials often find it convenient to ignore drug use among players, a course of inaction that NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw referred to last week when he said, "There are stars and superstars on every team who are doing drugs, and the team and the coaches protect them because they are who they are."

Unfortunately, Upshaw also seems disinclined to do much about the situation—a lack of interest that appears to extend to anabolic steroids. The use of steroids is rampant in the NFL, posing health hazards for players and raising ethical questions (SI, May 13, 1985), yet the league has never flatly outlawed them, much less tested for them. Until recently, Upshaw had denied any knowledge of use of anabolic steroids in the league, and last week he said that testing for them would never be part of the NFL drug program because testing for steroids costs "$5,000 to $10,000 per test." In fact, the cost of a steroid test ranges from $150 to $250. Last month the NCAA adopted routine testing for anabolic steroids at all championship events and bowl games. The Olympics already have such tests.

Rozelle and Upshaw appear to be playing similar games on the subject of testing for cocaine and other street drugs. In recent weeks several NFL teams have tried to impose blanket postseason drug testing on their players, efforts that the union has resisted by arguing, among other things, that such testing would be an invasion of privacy. For its part the league has insisted, just as righteously, that more extensive testing is an essential deterrent to drug use. But last week Upshaw said that the NFLPA had offered to drop its opposition to mandatory postseason testing if management would agree to restore team rosters from 45 players to the 49-man limit that existed until last season. No way, said management, which had reduced the rosters to save money. Protection of privacy? The union was willing to use that principle as a bargaining chip. Essential deterrent? Management takes the position that it already has the right to conduct postseason tests. Why pay for something if you can get it for free?

The only one who seemed to be doing anything at the moment to combat drugs in the NFL was Patriots coach Raymond Berry, and he was paying the price.

"Things need to be clarified," said Berry on Friday as he sat at his home in Medfield, Mass. An honest and amiable man, he had seen his AFC championship team torn emotionally asunder, his integrity challenged and his efforts to improvise an effective drug-testing program ruined following revelations about drug use on his team in a series of articles by Boston Globe sportswriter Ron Borges.

Borges's first story appeared on Tuesday, less than 36 hours after the Patriots' 46-10 Super Bowl drubbing by the Bears and just a day after the New England players had voted overwhelmingly at a team meeting in New Orleans to accept a one-year mandatory drug-testing program proposed to them by Berry. Calling this meeting proved to be a mistake by Berry. The NFLPA saw it as an effort to defy the collective-bargaining pact, and the union filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board. Upshaw also criticized the timing of the gathering: "It was the morning after the game. These guys were up all night. They were upset. They would have agreed to have someone shot in the city square."

It was during this meeting that Berry first told his players that an unnamed reporter—Borges—had "names and facts" about drug use on the team, and that the story could break anytime. When Borges's stories broke, they described a "major drug abuse problem" among the Pats. Borges's first story did not use players' names, but his second-day story did. It said that six New England players—wide receivers Irving Fryar and Stephen Starring, running back Tony Collins, defensive end Kenneth Sims, cornerback Raymond Clayborn and safety Roland James—had admitted to Berry, when he confronted them about his suspicions, that they had used illegal drugs. Berry, perhaps the sport's straightest moral arrow, told Borges that as many as 12 Patriots either had "serious" drug problems—Berry's definition of serious seemingly goes right down to onetime use of marijuana—or were under suspicion.

In confronting players he had reason to believe were using drugs. Berry was acting in accordance with the collective-bargaining drug plan. But he also circumvented that plan. For one thing, he lobbied players to try to get them to consent to teamwide mandatory drug testing, an obvious end run around the agreement. The end run culminated in the post-Super Bowl meeting, at which the players voted to accept voluntary drug testing. "There was nothing existing that really had done anything," Berry says. "I decided something had to be done."

It is hard to disagree with Berry on that. Less defensible is the fact that the Patriots—Berry, maybe, general manager Patrick Sullivan for sure—saw fit to breach the agreement by confirming the identities of the six alleged drug users. According to club officials, all six (and an unidentified seventh New England player) had admitted drug use and agreed to counseling sessions and regular urine tests. When their names appeared in the Globe, the six felt betrayed, and Clayborn, for one, denied having used drugs. According to Borges, Berry had confirmed some of the players' identities weeks earlier by nodding his head when read their uniform numbers. At any rate, Sullivan had provided direct confirmation of the six names.

"All the trust is broken," said Fryar angrily in reaction. "I don't trust coach Berry and I surely don't trust Pat Sullivan." New England player representative Brian Holloway declared the team's Monday approval of drug testing invalid. Upshaw added, "I can't think of anything the Sullivans haven't screwed up yet, from the Michael Jackson concert [the tour promoted by Patriot executive vice-president Chuck Sullivan, Patrick's brother] on down. If anyone in their organization should know what's in the collective-bargaining agreement it's Chuck Sullivan. As a management council member and executive committee president, he [helped] draw it up."

The Patriot players were further incensed by the slowness of New England management to put the extent of their drug involvement in perspective. Only on Thursday did team psychiatrist Dr. Armand Nicholi issue a statement explaining that all seven Patriots involved in the drug-testing program had tested clean by Jan. 8, and that some had been clean the entire season.

Sims, who says he tested clean from training camp on after being involved with marijuana, was so furious at New England management that he said he wasn't sure he could ever play for the team again. Clayborn asked to be traded or released outright. Sims said all six had been "given up as sacrificial lambs" by Berry and Sullivan "to avoid a speculative story that would have implicated the whole team."

In fact, the Patriots' drug problems may have been no worse than those of some other NFL teams. A source close to the St. Louis Cardinals, for example, has told SI that five Cardinals entered drug rehabilitation programs after the 1984 season. Coach Jim Hanifan, who was fired at the end of the '85 season, says that drug use by St. Louis players was one of the contributing factors in the demise of his team after high preseason hopes.

Borges, 36, the Globe's Patriot-beat writer, says he had the first threads of his drug story as early as mid-December. "I'd received information from various sources—people on the streets, players—that things were going down in bars and restaurants around town," he says.

Borges learned from his informants that some of the Patriots had attended a drug party in Miami following New England's 30-27 loss to the Dolphins on Dec. 16, and that Berry had confronted them about it afterward. Borges says he tried to pin down more details but couldn't. On Jan. 6 he approached Berry with his drug allegations.

Berry says he sensed at this meeting that Borges already had the whole story. No names were mentioned, according to Berry, although Borges, as noted earlier, claims the coach tacitly confirmed the uniform numbers of some of those allegedly involved with drugs. Borges says Berry agreed to cooperate only if the story were held until the end of the Patriots' season, and Borges says he agreed to hold off. Berry remembers differently. He asserts that there was no deal, that Borges "said he would like to talk off the record" and "told me...he would try not to print the story before the [AFC Championship] game." In either case, the Globe's failure to print the drug story following the Jan. 6 meeting—or earlier—brought charges from the rival Boston Herald that the Globe had sat on the story for fear of hurting the Pats in the playoffs. The Globe denied this. Borges said he at first had no solid story and later felt honor-bound by his pledge to Berry to wait until the end of the season.

Berry has made the elimination of drugs a personal crusade since replacing Ron Meyer as Patriot coach in October of 1984. He is sensitive to the issue, partly as a result of the 1963 death by heroin overdose of his former Baltimore Colt teammate Big Daddy Lipscomb. When Berry began to push for drug testing following the 1984 season, he made a point of visiting virtually every Patriot player to talk about the evils of drug use.

But in the end the long-suffering Patriots finally reached the Super Bowl, only to lose the game and be further embarrassed by the drug revelations. A parade in the Pats' honor had been scheduled for this week but the club canceled it, insisting, unconvincingly, that the drug situation had nothing to do with it.

"Everything we did for this organization this year is shot," said Fryar. "This is our one time to the Super Bowl, and now we're right back down in the basement. We might never get out."

It was ironic that all this was happening at a time when athletes in other pro sports have begun to accept the need to implement more effective drug programs. Late last year, for example, the world's leading men's tennis players voted to accept testing for cocaine, amphetamines and heroin starting this year. And just last week the Baltimore Orioles announced major league baseball's first teamwide testing program, which won the endorsement of commissioner Peter Ueberroth and guarded acceptance by Major League Players Association director Donald Fehr. Baltimore's plan sprouted from the players' side: It was drawn up by Ron Shapiro, agent for 16 Orioles, and calls for three to six mandatory random urinalyses, with results to be held in confidence, and if drug usage is detected, treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Player rep Scott McGregor spoke with teammates on behalf of the plan and said he was "trying to do what is in my heart. Baseball has been tarnished and stained and it grieves my heart to see it go on any longer."

If last week's events are any lesson, the NFL players themselves also may have to take on the burden of ridding their sport of drugs. Pro football's leadership would rather think about the TV ratings.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRABerry felt it was his players' Patriotic duty to accept a teamwide drug-testing program. TWO PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRAThe Globe's Borges (above) held his stories until after the Super Bowl, then named (clockwise) Clayborn, Fryar and Sims, among other Pats. TWO PHOTOSMICKEY PFLEGER[See caption above.] PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERHanifan believes that drugs played a role in the Cardinals' disappointing '85 season. TWO PHOTOSMICKEY PFLEGERRozelle and Upshaw have wasted too much time dodging the drug-testing issue.

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