The number of NFL players suspected of drug abuse is growing at an alarming rate
September 18, 1988

Drug suspensions in the NFL this season reached a total of 17 last week, and no one knew if we were nearing the end or were barely beginning the cleansing of America's game. In fact, no one seemed sure if what was happening was very good, very bad or merely very, very sad.

Here, for the record, are the names of the first 14 players caught, in the order in which they were suspended: Dexter Manley, Redskins; Doug DuBose, 49ers; Kevin Gogan, Cowboys; Richard Reed, Broncos; Rob Riddick, Bills; Pat Saindon, Falcons; Greg Townsend, Raiders; Tony Collins, Colts; Lawrence Taylor, Giants; Terry Taylor, Seahawks; Emanuel King, Bengals; Daryl Smith, Bengals; Bruce Smith, Bills; John Taylor, 49ers. All were suspended for 30 days, except for three-time loser Collins, who is out of the NFL for the entire year and possibly longer.

Then there were the three players collared last week:

•Charles White, 30, of the Rams, the 1979 Heisman Trophy winner and the NFL's leading rusher last year, had been arrested by police in Brea, Calif., after a wild chase on foot in the summer of '87 and charged with being under the influence of a controlled substance (SI, Aug. 29). In order to stay with the Rams, he had to agree to undergo drug counseling and urinalysis daily, which was later changed to three times a week, for the rest of his career.

Last week White's test results indicated that he had drunk a large amount of alcohol, and, as league rules dictate, following this second substance-abuse transgression, he too was suspended for 30 days. At first White said he had only had a "few beers," but later he was contrite and seemingly resigned to his punishment. "I know I shouldn't have been fiddling around with any kind of alcohol," he said. "It's nobody's fault but mine." His wife, Judi, was outraged and said, "They never made it clear to Charles about alcohol. That's a legal substance. He thought it was just drugs he had to watch out for. I think they're on a witch hunt."

•Richard Dent, 27, the Bears' star defensive end and MVP of the 1986 Super Bowl, had what he said were "very, very low traces" of marijuana show up during a routine team drug test in August '87. Twice this year, in May and in August, he had tested clean. Even so, he was told that he would have to continue taking tests during the season because NFL policy mandates random examinations for two years after a player has shown positive results. Dent refused to be tested further. The NFL suspended him. He sued, challenging the league's right to punish him for not taking the test when it had no reason to suspect that he was now using drugs.

Dent's lawyer, Steve Zucker, said, "If a guy tests positive in August at training camp, I think that's probable cause to test him maybe the whole season. But to go back over a whole year, that's another question." Dent's suit charged that he had been given no opportunity to present his own evidence, to cross-examine witnesses or to ask questions about the way the tests were administered. Further, it said, "there appears to be substantial confusion about what [NFL drug] policies are and how they are enforced."

The day after Dent's suit was filed, the league suddenly lifted his suspension and arranged for a hearing to be held this week before commissioner Pete Rozelle to settle the matter.

•Calvin Thomas, 28, a running back for Chicago, tested positive for at least two substances—cocaine and marijuana. The NFL said that this was his second violation of substance-abuse policy; he had also tested positive in the summer of 1987. Thomas said he had never been informed of his first offense and thus didn't know that his career was in jeopardy. Bears president Michael McCaskey insisted that the team had informed Thomas of his positive test, but when Thomas's lawyer, Andy Knott, asked for documentation of that, McCaskey could not produce any and told Knott he would have to take his word for it. Thomas has signed up for an outpatient substance-abuse clinic. On Saturday a Cook County Circuit Court judge refused to hear Thomas's request to have the suspension lifted.

The murkiness of these three cases is more the rule than the exception in the NFL's new $1.5 million centralized drug-testing program. The league has tested all players in training camp since 1986, but until this year the follow-up tests on players whose training camp results were positive were done by team doctors, men beholden to their clubs rather than to the NFL. Often the doctors simply didn't report negative results. Indeed, in the previous two years there had been no suspensions as a result of these drug tests.

Now all tests fall under the jurisdiction of the NFL's drug expert, Dr. Forest Tennant, 47, an associate professor at the UCLA School of Public Health and an expert on chemical dependency. Jan Van Duser, the NFL's director of operations, told SI's Jill Lieber: "We now have our own collectors go in, observe the players offering specimens and send the samples directly to Tennant's lab. He does two tests on each sample and then sends it out for two different processes at another lab. He gets four readings per specimen, and if any one is negative, the player is considered clean. We must have unanimous results."

It sounds foolproof, but in the point-counterpoint world of drug testing there are ways of concealing the use of illegal substances. This is particularly true of anabolic steroids, which the NFL has declared to be "prohibited in any quantity for any purpose." The use of diuretics to dilute the urine or the practice of laying off steroids for a few weeks before a test are among the most obvious ways to avoid detection. The San Francisco Examiner reported a more grotesque method last month: Several players from one NFL team arranged on the day of their training camp tests this summer to have an out-of-state technician catheterize them, drain the presumably steroid-loaded urine from their bladders and replace it with "clean" urine that the technician had brought with him. The players then passed this as their own specimens.

Bill Walsh, coach of the 49ers, told the Examiner, "As bizarre as it sounds, that is what we hear happened. The NFL authorities have been notified, but this obviously shows that we are not going to be able to solve the steroid problem very easily."

As it turns out, the steroid problem is something the league is pretty much ignoring this season. None of the 17 players punished so far were suspended for using steroids. Indeed, a league handout last week announced that the 1988 testing results weren't complete yet, that they wouldn't be complete until next month and that even when they were finally finished, players wouldn't need to worry about heavy disciplinary action for using of steroids. "While suspension is possible, it is not anticipated during the '88 season," said the release. Why? Commissioner Rozelle said, "We are learning about this substance just like the medical profession is learning.... We are uncertain about how effective the tests are.... It depends on how long the drug has been in a man's system, whether it was injected or taken orally—all these things make a difference. These tests cost a lot of dough.... People tell players when the tests are being held.... We are still in a learning process."

Skeptics doubt whether the NFL would want to nail all of its steroid users even if it could. Some players estimate that at least 40% of the league's players—mainly linemen—use steroids to get bigger and stronger. If that figure is correct, it means 500 pros could test positive for substance abuse in any testing period. To suspend so many players at once would all but sink the league.

According to Kim Wood, the strength coach for the Cincinnati Bengals, "It's wrong for the NFL to draw a distinction between cocaine, marijuana and steroids. Steroids are just as dangerous to the user, maybe more dangerous. But look at it this way: If a coach has a guy who's screwed up on cocaine, he'll have trouble coaching the guy. On the other hand, if a player's juiced up on steroids, he'll play like he's fighting on Guadalcanal. He's not only not a problem, he's an asset to the team."

Besides the problem of steroids, there's a suspicion among critics that the NFL drug-testing policy is more cosmetic than effective. Kicker Chris Bahr, 35, the oldest member of the Raiders, is particularly rough on the league: "I don't think they're trying to assist players. The policy stinks because they do not differentiate between a low level of marijuana or a high level of cocaine or a low level of alcohol. They treat it all the same. I'd say this is strictly a public relations move on their behalf, and the players are caught in the middle."

Gary Fencik, who retired from the Bears in 1987, was less fierce: "I don't doubt that they [the men who run the NFL] have concerns about players' health or they wouldn't be jeopardizing the success of some teams by taking people out. But I also think that this is part of the league's marketing policy to ensure the public of its credibility."

Along the same line, Keith Fahnhorst, former 49er tackle and longtime player representative who is now a budding stockbroker in Minneapolis, said, "You have to wonder if all this testing isn't just public relations and for the public image, when you hear the NFL isn't going to suspend steroid users. What does the NFL really want?"

Rozelle replies to these sorts of charges by saying, "If we just wanted good public relations, we could have taken drastic steps years ago just to look good. The more we learn about the drug problem, the more we realize how bad it is. Of course, we are in the public eye and we are in kids' eyes everywhere, so we have a responsibility to run as clean a sport as possible. You might call that a form of public relations. But we do have compassion for the players in this. We want to help them with their health problems."

Some critics think the league isn't particularly enlightened in the manner in which it treats its drug abusers. The 30-day suspension for counseling, they say, is far too short. Ricky Nattiel, a Bronco wide receiver who earned a degree in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Florida and who works as a counselor at a juvenile detention center during the off-season, says, "Of course, it's going to make the league look good when they say they're trying to help players in trouble. But you cannot help anybody in 30 days. I think you've got to suspend the player until he comes back healed, until he's well, until he has honestly overcome the problem."

Rozelle agrees that 30 days isn't enough: "It's time to think about things a little, maybe have some in-patient clinical care, but it's not long enough for a cure. A man needs at the very least three months for that, we are aware of that. We don't mean for 30 days to work a miracle."

Dr. Allan Lans, attending psychiatrist at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City and formerly the clinical director of the Smithers Center for Alcoholism and Drug Treatment (the rehabilitation clinic in Manhattan where the Mets' Dwight Gooden went for treatment), finds another big flaw in the NFL's drug program. "The trouble is, these suspensions are punitive," he says. "They're injuring the player. It's hard for me as a physician, a psychiatrist, to punish people for what is basically a disease. This has to be seen as a medical problem. The NFL is a relatively small group—some 1,300 people—small enough to make a consistent policy. There can't be this terrible confusion and seeming contradiction in the way players are treated. Testing should not be seen as a trap. It should be seen as a screen that's there to tell a player he's in trouble. It should be an aid. The NFL makes its drug-testing program demeaning, humiliating. It seems more like it's there to catch someone than to help him."

Another point of contention is the inequitable way NFL drug offenders are being dealt with once they're caught. The most startling comparison involves two deeply troubled superstars—Manley of the Redskins and Taylor of the Giants. Both have histories of drug and alcohol abuse, and this summer both had positive test results for the second time. However, Manley was caught in July, before training camp opened. Under NFL policy, he was suspended for the standard 30 days, which meant he missed a lot of punishing workouts in the hot sun and four meaningless preseason games. Taylor, on the other hand, produced his positive test on Aug. 15; he has missed the first two Giants games of the regular season and will miss two more. If the Redskins and the Giants also suspended the pay of the two men—which is unknown, since, in another odd twist in the NFL's thinking, a club doesn't have to penalize a transgressor if it doesn't want to—Manley would have lost a comparatively meager $2,800, while Taylor would be out a whopping $250,000.

Despite the wrongheadedness about steroids, the uneven disposition of justice and other flaws, there's still something to be said for the NFL's testing program. It has caused the players to take heed, and whether their motive is fear of being caught or fear of being sick, they should respond. The attention focused on drug use and the fact that the league is, for the first time, showing itself to be deadly serious about drug abuse can only be good in the long run.

Gogan, a Cowboy tackle, tested positive for marijuana in an early-summer test. Because he also had tested positive in the summer of 1987, he was suspended. His reaction to the experience is revealing—and a measure of the good to be found in the NFL program. "I got myself in a good rehabilitation program and I got my priorities straight, and now I feel good," says Gogan. "Millions of people smoke marijuana every day, and I was just one of them. But the system got me, and I'm glad that it did. I never thought I had a problem, but my counselor looks at it differently than I ever did."

PHOTORICK STEWART/ALL SPORT USAEach of these players got a 30-day suspension, but when Dent sued, his was lifted, pending a hearing before Rozelle (far left). PHOTOJ. DANIEL/ALL SPORTS USA[See caption above.]
PHOTOCHUNCK SOLOMON[See caption above.]
PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.]
PHOTOJOE TRAVER[See caption above.]
PHOTOPAUL JASIENSKICollins, a three-time loser, is out for the season, maybe longer.